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
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
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
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
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