IRA declares peace, but for some old warriors it's abject surrender

Gerry Adams promises no more bombs, but there is still a long road to travel

Minus his ubiquitous balaclava, the new public face of P O'Neill - the IRA nom de guerre which appears on every significant statement - went to the theatre on Friday.

As the rain hammered down, the IRA's first spokesman to show himself to the world enjoyed the Irish premiere of The Wrong Man, a new play by Sinn Fein's former publicity director, Danny Morrison.

The play was a fitting choice. Opening with the brutal interrogation of a suspected informer, it portrays an IRA shorn of triumphalism and mythology: a foretaste, perhaps, of the rather different image it must now adopt.

Just 24 hours earlier, the soft voice of former prisoner Seanna Walsh - otherwise P O'Neill - had read the communiqué signalling the Provos' Long War was over: 'The leadership of Oglaigh na hEireann has formally ordered an end to the armed campaign. All IRA units have been ordered to dump arms. Volunteers must not engage in any activities whatsoever.'

For republicans, Walsh - known as Sid, and an ex-cellmate of the hunger striker Bobby Sands as well as a loyal ally of Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams - is a reassuring face. Unionists, however, focused on his words, thrashed out between Adams, Martin McGuinness, Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain, and the UK and Irish Prime Ministers. They were supposed to show that, of all the IRA statements billed as breakthroughs, this one was different.

The question, even as army watchtowers in south Armagh are being dismantled, is what has really changed? Do promises that the IRA will no longer tolerate members engaging in criminal acts really mean that profitable rackets will be abandoned, or just privatised? And without an explicit promise to disband, is the war truly over?

The statement was the result of months of intensive private talks - led by Hain and Downing Street chief of staff Jonathan Powell - following Adams's appeal in April for the IRA to adopt peaceful and democratic means. Its aim was a summer statement leading to final weapons decommissioning, breaking the dangerous stalemate in Northern Irish politics.

On the eve of the failed bombings in London, Adams phoned Hain to seek urgent talks. They met the next day and the following one. By last weekend, ministers were confident of a breakthrough. But they did not know how far the IRA would go to clarify its aims.

Last Monday, Adams met the Taioseach, Bertie Ahern, and then Tony Blair, before returning to Belfast for final talks. By the time Blair told reporters the next day that the IRA could not be compared to al-Qaeda because they would 'not have set about trying to kill 3,000 people' - although the IRA killed 1,700 of the 3,600 victims of the Troubles - he knew the deal was almost done.

There have been unsung heroes of the breakthrough - such as the feisty sisters of Robert McCartney, whose campaign for justice for the Catholic father-of-two killed by IRA men in Belfast has increased public pressure on the republicans.

The IRA was 'snubbed in the White House [because of that] and that was very damaging', said one government source. Since 11 September, the IRA has known that bombing the British mainland was a non-starter, as it would put it in the same category as al-Qaeda, but the murder of McCartney was the last straw for public opinion.

Nonetheless, negotiations have not been smooth. Concessions to republicans, such as the freeing of the jailed Shankill bomber Sean Kelly on the eve of the declaration, provoked fury. Alan McBride, whose wife and father-in-law died in Kelly's massacre, said it meant the IRA statement 'will not have the significant impact on the unionist community it might, just might otherwise have had'.

Some republicans, too, have reservations. Tommy Gorman escaped from a prison ship by swimming the freezing Belfast Lough, he went on as engineering officer for the IRA's Belfast Brigade to help devastate the city in the bombing campaigns of the Seventies and Eighties.

'If 20 years ago in the republican movement someone had said "Let's recognise the unionist veto; join a power-sharing government in Stormont; give up all or most of our guns and wait for Ian Paisley to agree when Sinn Fein can enter a coalition with the DUP", that person would have gone down a hole in a remote bog or have been sent in a straitjacket to a lunatic asylum,' he said.

Nonetheless, there is little sign of serious opposition.

All eyes, however, are on this autumn. Talks on resuming power-sharing will begin in September: legislation allowing IRA killers to return home without being charged will be introduced in the following months.

Britain's military presence will be reduced, depending on the conclusions of the independent body that monitors decommissioning, due to report in October, and the report of the Bloody Sunday inquiry into the killing of 13 people in Derry in 1972 by British troops, may finally lay some ghosts to rest.

But difficult questions remain over the IRA's criminal activities. Shortly after Walsh read his statement, he was drinking in a Dublin pub frequented not just by republicans but by well-known figures from the city's criminal underworld.

For now, however, there is hope. When Adams gave his Friday press conference, there was no media scrum: the caravan has moved on to cover a deadlier war. What remains to be seen is whether Northern Ireland's politicians have moved on, too.


John O'Farrell, Gaby Hinsliff and Henry McDonald

The GuardianTramp

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