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Republicans' Practiced Ambiguity

(by Ed Maloney, Sunday Tribune)

There is very little of significance that has been said or done by Republican leaders handling the peace process in the last few years that has not been invested with ambiguity. It has been the thread that has stitched the whole thing together, the device enabling Sinn Fein luminaries to speak words that have opposite meanings for each of their target audiences, the Republican grassroots on one hand and on the other, Sinn Fein's new friends in and out of government on both sides of the Atlantic.

So it was with the IRA's statement last week dealing with the two Belfast killings which now look as if they will propel Sinn Fein out of the Stormont Talks and the peace process into what is arguably its most severe crisis yet.

The statement was masterfully worded: "Contrary to speculation surrounding recent killings in Belfast, the IRA cessation of military operations remains intact", the IRA said.

While most observers picked up on the statement's failure to address the specific allegations that the IRA had, directly or indirectly, been involved in the deaths of drug-dealer Brendan Campbell and UDA man Robert Dougan, the more significant feature, perhaps, was that the statement was capable of being interpreted in two very different ways and sufficiently so to preserve the IRA's long honoured reputation for never telling lies.

On one reading it seems to be a straightforward denial that the IRA was involved in the killings. On another reading however the statement could mean the following: "Despite speculation that the two killings spell the end of the ceasefire nothing could be further from the truth; while the IRA may have been responsible for the two deaths it has no intention of going back to full-scale warfare".

The subtlety of the IRA's language is not the only puzzling aspect of last week's events. Republican and non-Republican alike asked the same question: why had the IRA acted as they had, when they had? Surely the architects of these two operations must have known there was an enormous risk of them ending in disaster for Sinn Fein?

The reasons for each operation are easy enough to comprehend. The drug-dealer, Brendan Campbell, a member of one of Belfast's cross-community drug cartels it seems, had made himself a target. He had come into conflict with the IRA several times over his trade in West Belfast and this had culminated last October in an attack he launched on Sinn Fein's Andersonstown headquarters, Connolly House.

He sprayed the building with automatic fire but missed and hit a solicitor's office next door. Then he tossed a grenade. This failed to go off and was recovered by the IRA the next day. They established that it was one of the same variety imported by Loyalists from South African sources in the late 1980's, the same type used by Michael Stone in his infamous attack in Millfield cemetery. It was confirmation, if such were needed, of the links between Loyalist paramilitaries and the drug business and disturbing evidence that Loyalists had allies on the ground in West Belfast.

The morning after the attack Campbell phoned Connolly House and taunted Sinn Fein. It was more than Republicans could bear, a challenge to their authority that they knew had to be answered. Just before Christmas they struck back. Campbell was tracked to a bar in a south Belfast industrial estate and shot several times. Luckily for him they were all body shots and Campbell's bullet proof vest saved his life. But not for long. Last week the gunmen came back to complete their unfinished business.

The security forces, according to informed sources, linked the two attacks to Direct Action Against Drugs (DAAD) by virtue of the gun used. Ballistics tests apparently showed that it had been used before in one of the spate of DAAD killings in the winter of 1995/1996.

Providing "incontrovertable" proof that DAAD is a front for the IRA however would be a different thing. The RUC, the two governments, all their intelligence agencies and most of the media may believe absolutely that DAAD is the IRA in another guise but there is no proof, of the court conviction type, to link the two.

Expelling Sinn Fein from the Talks solely on the basis of the Campbell killing was thus going to be no easy achievement for the party tempted to lodge an indictment; for SF the Campbell operation was a relatively low risk enterprise. In fact it might have opened up cracks between Irish Nationalists, the British and the Unionists over whether SF should be thrown out which could have been to SF's benefit.

The killing of Robert Dougan was a less straightfoward matter. He was without doubt a natural IRA target but the question is why did the IRA choose now to kill him?

He had been on the IRA's list for some time. Not only was he suspected of being a member of South Belfast's UDA hit-squads, Republicans believed that he was the organiser of one of the worst recent examples of Loyalist hatred for Catholics.

This was the incessant petrol-bombings and attacks mounted on a lone Catholic family caught on the wrong side of the peace line near Lenadoon, where Loyalist South Belfast touches the Republican West. For months the family stubbornly refused to move until the intensity of the violence and the inability of the security forces to stop it forced them to quit. That would have earned Dougan a special hatred.

But why kill him now? The obvious time to have acted would have been in the midst of the UDA/LVF New Year campaign against Catholics when the IRA would have risked less censure for responding whilst under unbearable pressure. But the attack on Dougan was a clear two weeks after the UDA had ended its violence. It risked the IRA being blamed for trying to provoke sectarian warfare just when things looked as if they were settling down again.

There is one important reason and this was the considerable disquiet apparent in the Republican community over the IRA's inaction during that UDA/LVF killing spree, a disquiet made all the more difficult to bear by the contrasting INLA performance. In west Belfast the 'I Ran Away' graffitti re-appeared during that time and a crowd chanted "Retaliation" at an SF organised peace rally. If this is what it was like on the streets one can be sure feelings were much more intense inside the IRA itself.

Killing Dougan would have re-assured the rank and file that the IRA had not abandoned its defining role as community protectors but it may not have been the only reason for targetting him. Had the IRA stopped at killing Brendan Campbell it could have left itself open to a wounding charge: that it was prepared to defend the community against drugdealers but not Loyalist killers. If that was a factor then Robert Dougan's death was to Brendan Campbell's as night is to day.

If, as seems likely, the organisers of Dougan's killing hoped that it would join the ranks of "no claim, no blame" actions, most of them carried out hitherto by Loyalists, and that neither Sinn Fein nor the IRA would pay a penalty, they were taking a terrible risk.

The odds were stacked against the IRA. The gunmen used the same route in and out of the Twinbrook estate to South Belfast more or less as the INLA had when it killed UDA man Jim Guiney only a few weeks before. The chances of heavy surveillance in the area afterwards and of the IRA's intelligence preparations being rumbled must have been very high.

The gun used by the killers of Robert Dougan was apparently disposed of quickly afterwards; a recovered bullet, knowledgeable sources say, was too badly damaged to determine whether the weapon had an IRA history or was "clean" and unused. But it was forensic evidence linking unwashed clothing to three men arrested in a Twinbrook house and the getaway car used by the killers (but, inexplicably, not burned to destroy evidence) which apparently enabled Chief Constable Flanagan to allege IRA responsibility.

Not for the first time a bungled IRA operation has cost Sinn Fein dear and come as a godsend to Unionists. UUP leader David Trimble is on the brink of achieving what many suspected was his real Talks goal, the expulsion of Sinn Fein, and this at a point when the pressure on him to "engage" with the Provos and to make some hard decisions on a settlement was likely to intensify.

If the UDP's experience is to be a precedent Sinn Fein can look forward to five weeks in the sin-bin - re-entry to happen just two weeks before the unofficial Easter deadline for agreement in the Talks - and probably no visa to attend the White House St Patrick's Day bash. The next question must be, can the Sinn Fein leadership hold the IRA back during this period of penance or is this the beginning of the end for the peace process, or at least this phase of it?

The problem for optimists in this scenario is that there are so many signs either of internal dissent or leadership anxiety about dissent that it could be a very close run thing. The list of problems is quite daunting:

The history of the Republican side of the peace process is one of a vicious cycle: British obstructionism sapping grassroots Republican confidence in the process forcing internal concessions to the IRA which both limit Sinn Fein's room for manoeuvre and appear to vindicate the sceptical view that Provisional Republicans can never be brought to democratic politics.

The events of the last week have precipitated a crisis not just for the Talks but for the peace process itself. But have they also brought closer the day when, like de Valera before them, the differences between Sinn Fein's interests and those of the IRA become too wide to ignore?