Observers had been watching for a definitive republican response to the draft declaration that emerged from last week's talks on arms decommissioning. Instead Sinn Fein speakers at ceremonies in both parts of Ireland reiterated their generalised assertion that the IRA was under no obligation to disarm. They then tended to steer away from specific responses to the declaration.
The Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams, said in Dublin: "I want to pay tribute to the IRA. I commend today's IRA volunteers. 1916 was an IRA uprising. One of the provocations has been the demand on the IRA to disarm. This is something which the IRA has made clear it feels under no obligation to do."
He said he had assured the Ulster Unionist leader, David Trimble, he would do his best to find a way through the arms impasse. But he added: "That is a shared responsibility and none of us have the right to remove the democratic mandate of any section of our people or to step outside of commitments endorsed in the referendum on the Good Friday Agreement."
Although the draft declaration that emerged from last week's adjourned talks at Hillsborough Castle was not formally endorsed by any party, it sent a clear signal to the republicans. This is that the British and Irish governments, and just about everyone else involved in the peace process, regards IRA decommissioning as a political necessity. The accompanying signal was that if some arms are, in the words of the declaration, "put beyond use" then Sinn Fein will be accepted in government.
The political world is now divided into two camps. One set believes that the traditional republican refusal to decommission will be maintained, partly for abstract ideological reasons and partly because such a move would split the IRA. The other thinks that republicans will indeed put arms "beyond use" in some ingenious way that does not have connotations of surrender, because a refusal to do so would bring about the collapse of the peace process in which Sinn Fein has invested so much effort and credibility.
A test of whether the public republican stance represents posturing or reality will come on 13 April, when the adjourned talks are to be reconvened. Either way it is clear that at that point Sinn Fein will attempt to renegotiate the whole decommissioning issue.
The republicans yesterday sought to portray last week's document as a paper agreed between London and Dublin that had not been endorsed by the parties. The Sinn Fein chairman, Mitchel McLaughlin, said: "Good work was done but the political institutions are still blocked and the agreement is stalled and it will take, in my opinion, a huge effort to shift it."Reuse content