What kind of peace process ignores the Provos' murders?

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WHEN THEY came for Charles Bennett last week, he told his girlfriend he would be back in 15 minutes. He must have known the lads at the door. There was no struggle, no shouting; Charles just walked on out the door and never came back. The "boys" had him for four days. Let me point out that those who took him had no arrest warrant, they did not go before any judge to seek his arrest, nor did they allow him the right of access to a lawyer. All that is par for the course with Ulster's paramilitaries. So much par for the course that we take it for granted. We do not shout or protest. We, too, have become contaminated by familiarity.

Four days in the hands of the Provos is one hell of a long time. Charles Bennett must have known the omens weren't too good. After 22 years of living in West Belfast he would know the routine. Interrogation - often accompanied by beatings and torture - and then a bullet in the back of the head on some patch of waste ground. I don't know if Charlie Bennett was tortured. But he is most certainly dead. Three bullets in the head on a patch of waste ground off the Falls Road. Bang. Bang. Bang.

There is a word for what happened to Charles Bennett. To be absolutely correct I checked it in my Collins pocket dictionary this morning. Go to F and look up the word "Fascism". This is what you will find: "Authoritarian political system opposed to democracy and liberalism." What happened to Charles Bennett is the kind of thing Pinochet's boys used to get up to in Chile. It was the kind of killing that would not have been out of place in any of the great states of terror: Nazi Germany, Stalin's Soviet Union, Saddam's Iraq. It was arrogant, brutal, fascistic, and it happened on our doorsteps.

There might be some comfort to be gained if we thought that the killers were part of the republican fringe. But that is not apparently the case. Those ever reliable republican sources (in matters like this they do not lie) have indicated in Belfast that the killing of Charles Bennett was carried out by the Provisional IRA. Even more sickening was the suggestion I read in The Irish Times - again quoting "republican sources" - that Mr Bennett's murder was linked to unease in the Provo leadership over the continuing impasse in the peace process. He was killed, it was suggested, as a gesture to appease those who felt the movement was going soft.

Doubtless there was a more immediate cause, but the wider context suggests that Charles Bennett was a blood sacrifice. Think about that for a moment. Throw the politics to one side and follow that logic to its moral root. A human life to sooth the injured self-esteem of some Provo godfather. Does it not make you feel sick? Those hard men, afraid of looking soft, deciding to pump three bullets into the head of a 22-year-old. It reminds me of James Joyce's line about Ireland - the old sow that eats her farrow.

And what does the Good Friday peace agreement mean when set against the sordid facts of Charles Bennett's death? What we can easily say is that it means nothing to the hard men of the Belfast Provisionals. Not for them any worries about the fact that the people of the island voted overwhelmingly for peace in a referendum just over a year ago; why worry about that when you still have what you always had - guns and bombs and the bitter blessing of ancient grievance.

I was one of those who agreed with John Hume that an all-island referendum would rob the gunmen on both sides of any legitimacy. I believed that the democratic choice of the majority would fatally undermine the killers. In moral terms, of course, it undermines them. But the killing of Charles Bennett, the other murders and the bloody succession of punishment shootings (the latest just two days ago) and beatings gives an indication of what the Provisionals think about the democratic view of the Irish people.

Much has been made of the "intransigence" of the Unionists. David Trimble has been singled out for special vilification. Of course, the Unionists bear a heavy responsibility for the past. And yes, there are those who are delighted that the impasse over decommissioning has given them an excuse not to share power with Catholics. But none of this justifies the militarist, anti-human rights agenda of the IRA hardliners. It did not justify their past campaign and it does not excuse the present.

There is a moral crisis for those who want the peace process to work. Without the gunmen on board - loyalist and republican - there is no peace. And so there is a seemingly endless search for compromise, a deal that will not emasculate the paramilitaries but will satisfy the democratic agenda. The paramilitaries know this and they ruthlessly exploit their hold over the democrats. Punishment beatings and killings are the politics of bullyboys who know that the political establishment in London and Dublin will do almost anything to keep them on board.

I believe that Gerry Adams is brave and sincere about achieving a lasting peace. But how far is he willing to go in challenging the IRA? How willing is he to draw a line between the democratic agenda and the politics of murder? It is said that he cannot betray the culture from which he emerged, that the greatest fear is of a split within the republican movement with the hardliners going one way and the politicos the other. We hear again and again that Mr Adams will not risk such a scenario. But what is the alternative? To be the political face of those who deny the democratic agenda, to be the frontman who makes pained statements every time the Provos blow somebody's head off?

The more immediate question is whether the establishment - the governments in London and Dublin - is willing to turn a blind eye to the killing of Charles Bennett. The pragmatists' view - though they would never say this openly - is that a final settlement should not be imperilled because of one life. Or even two lives, or three lives. Or even 10, 20, God knows how many.

However, the agreement makes it clear that a breach of the ceasefire should mean a suspension of the offending party from the process.

Now if security and republican sources say - and the IRA has issued no statement to the contrary - that Charles Bennett was killed by the Provos, where does that leave the democrats? There are precedents. The Ulster Democratic Party was suspended after its military wing, the UDA, carried out sectarian murders. And Sinn Fein has previously paid the price for the IRA's involvement in two murders. The problem with pragmatism - and I have consistently argued in favour of a pragmatic approach over the past year - is that you can reach a point where the political game becomes more important than humanity, the negotiations become more sacred than the principles by which we want to live. That is the road we are in danger of going down right now.

If the killing of Charles Bennett passes without sanction, we are entitled to ask what value our leaders placed on this stolen life. It isn't as simple as that, I hear other commentators say. There is a bigger picture. Where is your sense of perspective, what about the context of history, the pressures to keep everybody on board? But I am sorry. It really is that simple. As simple as life and death. As simple as three rounds in the back of the head.

The writer is a Special Correspondent with the BBC