By his horrible death Charles Bennett, a 22-year-old taxi driver and low-level police informer, has acquired an importance denied to him in life. The official response to his murder, delivered on Thursday by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mo Mowlam, has thrown a shadow over the peace process. Almost in the same breath, she declared that "there is no doubt that the IRA were involved in the Bennett murder" and that there is "not a sufficient basis to conclude that the IRA ceasefire has broken down". That response, at once acknowledging that the IRA is engaged in cruel violence and ensuring that such violence has no political consequences for those who carry it out, makes the bad situation of the peace process considerably worse.
To understand why this is more than just one further pragmatic fudge in a process that has been full of necessary ambiguities and justified evasions, you have to appreciate the IRA's own interpretation of Charles Bennett's murder. That interpretation is fundamentally different from the way the organisation regards the other flagrant breach of its ceasefire in recent weeks - the attempt to import arms from Florida.
In the case of the foiled arms plot, the IRA effectively acknowledged that it had been caught offside. In a statement on 6 August, designed to elicit precisely the response that Mo Mowlam delivered this week, the IRA said that its Army Council did not sanction the attempt to import arms. This may or may not be a credible claim. What matters, though, is that the IRA felt it to be a necessary one. It implicitly acknowledged that, if the plan had been an official operation, the IRA would have broken the political rules and would have to pay a political price.
What, though, did the same statement have to say about Charles Bennett? Only that "there have been no breaches of the IRA cessation which remains intact". It did not deny killing Bennett. But it implicitly suggested that his murder, even if it was the work of the IRA, would not be a breach of the ceasefire. In case the implications of this were not clear enough, a Republican source spelled them out for the Irish Times: "The ceasefire relates to attacks against the British state, but the IRA retains the right to deal with matters in its own community. That includes taking action against informers, carrying out punishment attacks and policing dissidents if need be."
The immense seriousness of Mo Mowlam's statement this week is that it essentially endorses this definition of the IRA ceasefire as applying only to soldiers, policemen and Protestants. The conclusion that the IRA murdered Charles Bennett and yet that the IRA ceasefire is still intact can be justified only if it is understood that the ceasefire does not apply to the IRA's "own community". That, in turn, is a dangerous conclusion for the future of the peace process because it seems to hold out precisely the prospect that Unionists most fear: Sinn Fein in government in Northern Ireland while the IRA continues to kill and maim. For the hard-line intransigents within Unionism, it provides the perfect opportunity to say "I told you so".
The thinking behind Mo Mowlam's statement on the IRA ceasefire is obvious enough. An acknowledgement that the IRA ceasefire had indeed been breached would have raised demands for Sinn Fein to be excluded from George Mitchell's review of the Belfast Agreement next month. That, in turn, might have brought the whole delicate edifice of the agreement tumbling down. Swallowing hard, holding your tongue and hoping for the best seemed to be the pragmatic course.
But there were alternatives that would neither have pushed Sinn Fein out of the process nor have endorsed a dangerously limited notion of what a ceasefire is. Had Mo Mowlam announced a small gesture of punishment - even the relatively innocuous step of delaying the release of IRA prisoners for a week or two - she could have preserved the crucial principle that the ceasefire envisaged in the process is meant to be, in the words of all the official formulations, "complete and unequivocal". Instead, she seems to have given the IRA real scope for equivocation.
This has moral consequences, implying as it does that the life of a man like Charles Bennett is worth less than that of a policeman or a soldier. But it also has political consequences. It lifts the pressure on David Trimble and his Ulster Unionist colleagues for a pragmatic compromise on the crucial issue of IRA decommissioning. They can now argue with some conviction that, if they form an executive with Sinn Fein without a start to decommissioning, the Republican movement will be able to play a double game of democratic politics in Stormont and brutal murder on the Falls Road. They can claim that the IRA has been granted a kind of limited political immunity.
Already, there are signs that the Unionists feel that the pressure to compromise is off. Much of the hope for George Mitchell's attempts to rescue the peace process has centred on Chris Patten's forthcoming report on the reform of policing in Northern Ireland. Some kind of trade-off between a radical restructuring of the RUC on the one side and the beginning of IRA decommissioning seems to offer most room for manoeuvre. Whoever leaked a draft of Patten's report on Thursday - and the suspicion must be that it was someone on the government side - presumably hoped that it might draw attention away from Mo Mowlam's statement and towards the prospects of a deal on arms.
But Trimble's immediate hardline response to the leaked draft was not promising. He rejected the idea of changing the name of the force to the Police Service of Northern Ireland, removing the Union flag from its stations and changing its badge and oath to make them more politically neutral. He described those ideas as "unacceptable", implying that they could not be negotiated as part of Mitchell's review.
Yet all of these changes are absolutely implicit in the Belfast Agreement. If Northern Ireland is to be, as the agreement envisages, a neutral political space, it seems obvious that its police force cannot carry the symbols of one part of the community alone. That Trimble feels that he can go so strongly against the spirit of the agreement suggests that he has learnt the worst possible lesson from Mo Mowlam's statement on the IRA: that it is possible to fly in the face of a painfully negotiated peace deal and get away with it. A
Fintan O'Toole is a columnist with the Irish Times.