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Historic speech offers peaceful alternative

(Jim Gibney, Irish News)

Gerry Adams has walked many times the 200 yards from Sinn Féin's offices to Conway Mill on Belfast's Falls Road.

Conway Mill is a community venue. The people who run it are close to his political heart. They represent independence at its best.

I was there a few years ago when Gerry Adams called on the IRA to take their first arms initiative.

It was a highly charged, emotional occasion. In the audience was the backbone of the republican struggle. The men and women who went toe-to-toe with the British Crown forces.

The men and women who went to gaol in Ireland and England and lost their youth there.

The men and women who supported the IRA.

The people who made Sinn Féin the party they are today.

They backed Gerry's call.

Wednesday, a week ago, I watched him and the other leaders of Sinn Féin make the same journey to Conway Mill.

I listened as he once again invoked republicans to take an initiative to break the political logjam.

The writing of the speech, the timing of the speech, the delivery of the speech could not have been easy for Gerry Adams.

He is after all a republican from Ballymurphy whose political outlook was shaped by his father and mother and the 1950s and 1960s when republicans were thin on the ground.

The speech correctly acknowledges the bravery of IRA volunteers in the war years and in the peace years and the pain of loss for the families of those volunteers who died.

But for many republicans it is a speech before its expected time.

How much before its time I'm not sure because republicans were preparing for a situation where the IRA would, as part of an overall agreement, depart from the political scene.

The IRA publicly stated this last December.

However, last week's speech is a speech like no other, an appeal like no other, an initiative like no other, delivered by a republican leader like no other.

While scripting his speech Gerry Adams knew he was staring into and stirring a history of more than 200 years of unbroken armed republican resistance to Britain's occupation of Ireland.

His speech confirms and legitimises the narrative of that resistance while offering a peaceful alternative to armed struggle.

The scale of the strategic change outlined in the speech doesn't have an historical equivalence.

This is a time of unprecedented republican strength. Sinn Féin is the third largest party on this island and the lead party on the nationalist side in the six counties. The IRA is undefeated.

Against this reality Gerry Adams is asking the IRA to unilaterally consider leaving the scene.

On the republican Richter scale his speech is mark 10.

Characteristically Gerry Adams, carrying his immense personal and political authority, stepped into the 'bearna baoil' – the gap of danger – first before asking the IRA to follow.

He did so to save the peace process as he has done on other occasions.

However, his call this time is fundamentally different to all others.

The IRA is being asked to act alone. To put to one side their understandable and hard won interests for the greater good. They are also being asked to accept Gerry Adams's assessment that a peaceful and meaningful alternative to armed struggle exists.

If accepted the peace process will be protected from the securocrats in Downing Street and the vagaries of Ian Paisley and David Trimble.

In those circumstances the Irish government should be able to find the conviction they once held and regain their central role in advancing the peace process.

The courage of today's IRA's volunteers is legendary.

They displayed it in the war against the Crown forces and their allies; in the prisons where they protested and died to defend the freedom struggle and many times through initiatives since they called their first cessation in 1994.

Once again they are being asked to summon up the courage to make a decision which will change the politics of Ireland for ever.

It is a mighty ask.

No-one else can or will do it.

DATE, 2005

This article appeared first in the DATE, 2005 edition of the Irish News.

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