(by Ed Moloney, Sunday Tribune)
The Provisional IRA's Extraordinary Army Convention which had been scheduled for last weekend was postponed a day or so before it was due to take place in a move that has excited speculation in republican circles that the IRA leadership concluded it could not command enough support to soften the organisation's stand on weapons decommissioning, the Sunday Tribune has learned.
The Convention, which was originally scheduled to review and presumably extend the IRA's July 1997 ceasefire, had been organised to take place alongside a special Sinn Féin conference called to set out the party strategy for the next five years. The SF conference would have taken place during the day while the Convention would probably have sat through the night, as have the last four such events.
The SF conference had been originally planned to take place in Bundoran, Co Donegal but was then switched to Dundalk, Co Louth and then called off last Thursday or Friday at the same time as the Convention.
According to republican sources the decision to cancel was so sudden that not all delegates could be contacted in time. A number turned up expecting the event to go ahead only to find it had been called off.
This is not the first time republican conferences have been used to give cover to an IRA Convention. The 1986 Convention which dropped abstentionism in the Dail took place alongside an SF Irish language meeting so that IRA delegates would have a legitimate reason for being in the area.
An important clue about the IRA's intentions last weekend was that for the second time this year the IRA's commander in the Maze prison, Padraig Wilson was paroled at the same time as the Convention was scheduled to take place. According to the Northern Ireland Office, Wilson was out of the jail all last weekend. His parole was for five days, from Friday November 19th to Tuesday November 24th.
The prison commander was also allowed out of the Maze to attend the last IRA Convention on May 2nd this year which paved the way for Sinn Féin to accept the Good Friday Agreement a week later and to take seats in the new NI Assembly, a stance previously outlawed by the IRA's constitution.
On that occasion Wilson was allowed out of jail for eight hours in a decision the Northern Ireland Office said had been "exceptional" and taken "in an effort to promote the agreement and to encourage the peace process." This time Wilson didn't need special permission and was entitled to longer parole since he was recently cleared for early release under the terms of the Belfast Agreement.
Wilson's function at an IRA Convention would be to reflect the views of IRA prisoners on the issues in front of the IRA delegates. Earlier this year, in what observers of the IRA and Sinn Féin believe was a development sanctioned by republican leaders, Wilson gave a prison interview to the Financial Times in which he suggested IRA decommissioning would happen if the Belfast Agreement was fully implemented.
"I think a 'voluntary' decommissioning would be a natural development of the peace process once we get a sense that the arrangements envisaged in the agreement are beginning to function," he told the newspaper.
Since the release of IRA prisoners is one of the key "arrangements" in the agreement Wilson would be in a position to tell the delegates whether or not these were proceeding satisfactorily in the eyes of the inmates.
Any change in the IRA's stance on decommissioning would require alteration of the IRA's constitution by a two-third's vote of the Convention delegates. Until two years ago the IRA leadership - and presumably the SF one as well - was free to negotiate any issue dealing with arms if it wished to and presumably if it judged it politically possible.
At that time the IRA constitution gave the Army Council, the seven person body which runs the IRA on a day-to-day basis, full control over "all personnel and all armaments, equipment and other resources of Oglaigh na hEireann".
However at the 1996 Convention the constitution was changed, largely at the urging of dissidents, so that control over arms and explosives was taken out of the Army Council's hands and transferred to the much larger Convention, a conference which can number up to 90 delegates. This means that decommissioning, even a token gesture, could only take place with the permission of the IRA's rank and file. That move was also seen as an attempt to rein in the Army Council over its handling of the peace process.
Speculation in republican circles that the current leadership wants to revert to the pre-1996 position presumably to give Sinn Féin greater negotiating flexibility arises from the fact that it attempted to do just that at the May 2nd, 1998 Convention but failed. Without control over IRA weapons the leadership would be unable to budge from the public hardline refusal to disarm and Sinn Fein would not be able to negotiate on the matter.
At this year's Convention, according to republican sources, a senior Army Council figure who doubles as a Sinn Féin politician and is a prominent advocate of the peace process strategy argued that since those who had proposed the 1996 constitutional change had since left the IRA all the constitutional changes inspired by them should be dropped.
This was an attempt to avoid having to hold a specific vote on the decommissioning issue presumably because the IRA leader knew it would not result in the required two-thirds majority. However this move failed when the Convention rejected this catch-all approach.
This failure was a testament to the strength of feeling amongst the IRA's rank and file about decommissioning. It was the same at the 1996 Convention when the constitutional change tying the hands of the Army Council went through without one single delegate arguing or voting against.
The conclusion from the postponement of last weekend's Convention may point towards continuing stasis or even crisis for the Belfast Agreement. It is that short of Sinn Féin sitting in a Stormont Executive the IRA leadership may not be able to win a vote at a Convention even to allow the organisation to negotiate about arms much less decommission them.