Even the smallest gesture from the IRA could salvage peace

The peace process is likely to break down unless the republicans compromise on weapons decommissioning
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The Independent Culture
I HEAR the sound of distant drums. They are beating in the future - about two months away to be precise. The drums to which I refer are those of Ulster's marching season, the summer months of unrest and irrationality. If the Ulster peace process were working as it should, then there would be less reason than usual to fear the advent of the marching season at Easter. There would be a power-sharing executive of unionists and nationalists sitting in Stormont with shared responsibility for the policing of demonstrations.

Mr David Trimble and Mr Seamus Mallon would be sitting down with the leaders of Sinn Fein and loyalist groups to smooth a path through the dangerous summer months.

But what we have now is an agreement without the apparent will to make it work. Instead the punishment squads - fascists by any other name - batter and brutalise, the IRA and loyalist paramilitaries sit on their arsenals and dissident republicans plot a renewed campaign of terror.

Mo Mowlam's uncharacteristically gloomy expression on television this week was an indication of the precarious state of the process. Be assured that we are in serious trouble. The central assumption of the peace process - that common sense will ultimately prevail - looks less tenable than at any time since the Drumcree stand-off last July.

Consider the largely unreported clashes that have occurred around the Garvaghy Road area in the past week or so. Sectarian tension is high in Portadown, and the Drumcree stand-off is again building towards a confrontation. Hardline loyalists, who have long wished for the collapse of the agreement, see in the latest crisis over decommissioning the chance to drag the Ulster Unionists out of the process. They will again use Drumcree as a focal point of their anger.

That protest collapsed last year only because of the tragic deaths of three young Catholic boys. Had that tragedy not happened the police and Army would have faced an unprecedented confrontation with loyalist protesters. That in turn would almost certainly have ruined Mr Trimble's chances of persuading the doubters in his own party to stick with the process. As Drumcree looms once again, Mr Trimble needs all the help he can get. What he wants is to see a start to the decommissioning process

The question is whether those whom he needs to help him, principally Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, are either willing or able to deliver. I believe Mr Adams has travelled a long distance to his present position. He has made a journey that has involved the abandonment of armed struggle and the acceptance - so long unthinkable for republicans - of a political settlement within a United Kingdom.

The notion that he would bring his movement that far and then abandon the process for the sake of guns does not tally with what he know of his pragmatic political approach. It has been suggested that Mr Adams could make an historic compromise and follow the route of another republican leader, Eamon de Valera, who in 1927 agreed to take an oath of allegiance to the King in order to enter the Dail of the new Irish Free State.

But there is a critical historical difference in the circumstances in which both men have operated. When de Valera agreed to take the oath he did so as the leader of a movement that had suffered a resounding military defeat four years before, in the Irish Civil War. The backwash of defeat enabled de Valera to make his historic U-turn. Militarism as a principle had been discredited. Even then, some of de Valera's supporters were said to have attended the Dail with guns secreted on their persons. The issue for today's IRA is that, unlike its forebears in the Irish civil war, it has not been defeated and thus should not be expected to "surrender" its weapons. One of the essential building-blocks of the current settlement is the promise that nobody has been defeated.

Decommissioning of weapons is wrongly seen by republicans as an implicit acceptance of military defeat. And yet that is what the agreement which Sinn Fein (and by implication the IRA) supported now demands. But let us stay with de Valera for a moment. "Dev" was an exceptionally shrewd political operator. While he lacked the passion and charisma of Michael Collins, he was by far the more wily politician. That is why Dev survived the murderous trauma of the civil war years and Collins did not. Mr Adams knows there are many republican dissidents who would happily send him the way of Collins. And he may feel that he has pulled republicans as far as he can along the road to compromise with Mr Trimble. His concern now is probably as much with keeping the mainstream republican movement together as it is with advancing the peace process.

The brutal attempts of the IRA to keep the dissidents in line - witness the beating of Paddy Fox last week - are the most public sign we have of the battle within republicanism. Now that the Real IRA and Continuity IRA are building up weapons supplies and apparently planning terrorist attacks in Britain, the possibility of a fratricidal feud with the Provisional IRA becomes a serious possibility.

Can the Provos afford a well-armed and militarily aggressive organisation claiming the mantle of the Irish Republican Army? If it did come to a fight the Provos would win, but the cost in terms of lives and political progress could be huge.

For one thing the eruption of a shooting war would force the Government to suspend Sinn Fein's involvement in the peace process - the argument that the IRA was fighting to destroy a dissident threat to the process would be given short shrift.

A bloody feud similar to those we have seen in the past would be one breach of the Mitchell Principles too far. And how sure could we be that the Provisionals and Sinn Fein would be led by the same people who have steered the republican movement successfully through the past few dangerous years?

I believe David Trimble and Gerry Adams are both brave men. They are creatures of different cultures and traditions thrown together by the demands of peace.

The question now should be how they can help each other. I believe those around Mr Trimble when they say that any compromise on decommissioning by the Ulster Unionist leader would lead to his political demise. That is a fact not political spin. But I also accept that Mr Adams is not in a position to deliver the wholesale decommissioning of IRA weapons. What then is the half-way house that gets both men off the hook and allows this process to move forward?

There must be a symbolic gesture towards decommissioning from the IRA. How they do it, where they do it, what weapons are involved, is a matter they can resolve with the decommissioning body.

I don't believe there will be a large-scale destruction of guns - not while the threat from dissidents and loyalist paramilitaries remains, not while the peace process remains in such a precarious state. But it is not too much to ask that the IRA signals its commitment to the peace process by offering a gesture to the embattled Mr Trimble. It is then up to Mr Trimble to accept that gesture and convince his supporters.

Things are bad, but there is still time and there is still a choice. The IRA must make its choice now: a crucial gesture towards peace or a summer and more of agony.

The writer is a BBC News special correspondent