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It's wrong to play down IRA peace offer

(Jim Gibney, Irish News)

When people decided to take up arms it was because they believed there was no alternative.

But now there is an alternative.

That was one of several key messages contained in Gerry Adams's wide ranging presidential speech which he made at Sinn Féin's Ard Fheis last weekend in Dublin.

In my view Gerry Adams would not have been in a position to make such a comment 10 years ago because the alternative he referred to did not exist.

For Gerry Adams and for tens of thousands of republicans the alternative he is talking about is the peace process, even though in the same speech he described that process as being in "tatters at this time".

It was not only important for Gerry Adams to say what he did, it was also important for him to put his remarks in context. The context is every bit as important as the 'alternative' he pointed republicans at.

The context he outlined is the republican rationale for the existence of the IRA and the circumstances outlined by the IRA themselves last December in which they would leave the political scene.

I think it is important at a time when the political situation seems to be in freefall that we remind ourselves of one of the important anchors which has held the peace process together and is continuing to do so.

That is the publicly declared commitment of the IRA to support a genuine peace process.

Gerry Adams last weekend correctly said the IRA cannot be "wished away". They came into existence as a response to British rule in Ireland sectarian pogroms, assassination and British violence.

Their existence is an inevitable response to this violent situation because the Irish government and Irish politicians in Dublin, whose duty it was to defend Irish citizens in the north, abjectly failed to do so and abandoned northern nationalists to the violence of a unionist state.

Since 1969 hundreds of IRA volunteers have died in the struggle for justice and peace.

As Gerry Adams said there is "justifiable pride" among republican families about the role of their loved ones.

That justifiable pride extends beyond the families and is ingrained within the republican constituency which is growing across this country.

The tradition of armed republican resistance can trace its lineage back 200 years to the United Irishmen.

It is a potent force in Irish politics, historically and in contemporary terms.

The support for the IRA in the good and bad times meant that the question of partition and the injustice of British rule was never far from the centre of Irish politics.

Their solid support base has undoubtedly been stretched by the peace process, especially at times of great difficulty but the loyalty of the IRA's supporters has allowed that leadership to take some far reaching and difficult decisions in the interests of peace.

These have included calling and maintaining a ceasefire, putting arms beyond use on three separate occasions and most remarkably of all the IRA's statement last December in which, in my opinion, they outlined the circumstances in which they would depart from the political scene.

I think it is worth recalling these circumstances, which I believe can be described as a managed disengagement by the IRA.

In the context of a comprehensive agreement the IRA stated they would move "into a mode which reflects its determination to see the transition to a totally peaceful society"; would instruct all its volunteers "not to engage in any activity which might endanger that agreement"; would conclude the process "to completely and verifiably put all their arms beyond use, speedily and if possible by the end of December".

And in another confidence-building measure they said they would allow two clergymen, one Protestant one Catholic, to be present as observers to watch their arms gesture.

It is understandable, given the events of the last few months, that the significance of what the IRA said in December has been lost to the general public.

However, it is not acceptable that this offer should have been treated so casually by the British and Irish governments.

Nor is it acceptable that the media should play down this development by failing to carry out an analysis of what it means in terms of the physical force tradition in this country.

We are potentially on the cusp of a new set of political circumstances in this country which we have never before experienced.

The leadership of armed republicanism has outlined the circumstances in which it will encourage its activists and supporters to employ purely peaceful strategies this side of British withdrawal.

What we need to hear from the British government and the unionists is that they too are willing to do what is required of them.

March 11, 2005

This article appeared first in the March 10, 2005 edition of the Irish News.

This article appears thanks to the Irish News. Subscribe to the Irish News