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Irish, Ireland, British, Ulster, Unionist, Sinn Féin, SDLP, Ahern, Blair, Irish America

Charades and choreography

(by Suzanne Breen, Sunday Tribune)

So are they finally prepared to go away? If we're to believe Gerry Adams, the IRA is embarking on a period of intense consultation to decide its future.

The Sinn Féin president didn't directly say so but the vibes are that the prospects look good. The Provos could wither away into some sort of old boys' association, thus opening up the chance of a new, conclusive peace deal.

Unionists of all shades reacted with suspicion. "Where's the beef?" asked the DUP's Ian Paisley jnr. David Trimble's Ulster Unionists were equally cynical. But they would be, wouldn't they?

Yet experience cautions against accepting Sinn Féin or IRA statements at face-value. Lofty words are often unmatched by events on the ground.

The response to Robert McCartney's murder is testimony to that. The Provos have said all the right things, publicly supported the family's search for justice, reassured eye-witnesses they've nothing to fear.

But, behind-the-scenes, the machine ensures witnesses either don't come forward or else claim to have seen nothing. Suspects present themselves at police stations, then sit silently until released.

Just like the apparently sympathetic response to McCartney's murder, Gerry Adams' statement was a careful PR stunt aimed at two audiences. 'Soft' Sinn Féin voters who might have been put off by recent events, and middle-class Catholics dithering between the Shinners and the SDLP.

It was also very much for President Bush's ears. No invitation to the White House on St Patrick's Day, and all that signifies, was taken very seriously by Sinn Féin.

In the hours beforehand, Adams' speech was sold heavily in the US as a major development. Really, there wasn't anything new in it. He said that while in the past he had "defended armed struggle", now "there is an alternative".

But the IRA called its ceasefire 11 years ago and who can remember when Adams last embraced "armed struggle"? If Wednesday's statement isn't just another stage in a carefully choreographed performance, then the mainstream republican leadership has quite clearly lost the plot.

Because just eight weeks earlier, P O'Neill was in reverse gear, hinting at all kinds of awful things. In a statement on 2nd February, he withdrew the IRA's decommissioning offer.

"We do not intend to remain quiescent within this unacceptable and unstable situation. It has tried our patience to the limit," he thundered. The following day, he warned again: "Do not under-estimate the seriousness of the situation."

Gerry Adams himself warned the peace process "could be as transient as Mr Blair's time in Downing Street". Nothing has fundamentally changed since. There have been no major political developments, no generous proposals from either government or unionists.

Why would we be in crisis then, and in an altogether better place now? Sinn Féin and IRA leaders aren't irrational. The change in direction is because it's all a game.

While the IRA will meet over coming days and weeks, the idea of a knife-edge debate on its future is fictitious. There is no hawks and doves split within the ranks. No section supports the idea of returning to war.

Yes, there can be grumbling at times but, generally, the IRA is a united body. Sinn Féin leaders dominate the Army Council. After Michael McKevitt and other senior dissidents departed to form the Real IRA in late 1997, the era of the militant trouble-makers was over.

The IRA has said it is considering Gerry Adams' "appeal". Likely outcomes include a substantial act of decommissioning, a form of words that the war is over, or an announcement on the dismantling of IRA structures.

Government sources aren't predicting any move before the election. But unionist figures acknowledge the IRA's PR skills and don't rule out developments in the run-up to May 5th.

Again, it will be the reality on the ground that counts. Regardless of what the IRA decommissions or says, it seems unlikely that as an organisation it will disappear.

Wider society will be told one thing, and IRA activists will be told plenty of weapons have been retained and the money exists to buy anything else needed. There will be charades and more charades.

The IRA's business empire will remain intact. Republican ideology might be negotiable but robbery, money-laundering, and other financial scams aren't.

And those IRA figures on the ground who rule working-class Catholic areas with an iron fist won't be retiring. They might no longer be targeting the security forces but there will always be other duties for them.

With the wider conflict over, it must be admitted that many nationalists aren't particularly bothered by the above scenario. It's only when it affects their family, as the McCartneys discovered, that the reality hits home.

April 15, 2005

This article appears in the April 10, 2005 edition of the Sunday Tribune.