British government on probation

David McKittrick examines the new layers of republican mistrust
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The Independent Online
Incidents such yesterday's piece of theatre at Stormont are being watched closely by the Irish republican community, which at the moment effectively regards the British government as being on probation.

The IRA army council, literally, calls the shots in terms of acts of violence. But that tight band of militarists has to pay attention to the wider republican community, broadly meaning the 80,000 people who regularly vote for Sinn Fein.

The Docklands bomb in London forced that community to face fundamental and challenging questions on the future. It is a notoriously difficult community to read, but the signs are it has collectively reached the key conclusion that it does not want a return to full-scale violence.

The observer in London or Dublin, noting this and also noting that the British government has now met the primary republican demand of a date for all-party talks, might be forgiven for concluding a second IRA ceasefire is now on the cards. In Belfast, however, things look different, due to a factor which is no less formidable for being intangible: lack of trust.

The unanimous opinion of the republican community is that the British government, when presented with the first IRA ceasefire, regarded it not as an opportunity to bring Sinn Fein into politics, but as a chance to push for an IRA surrender.

Republicans all now say the same thing: that the British were not serious about the peace process, did not engage properly with it, did not respond in any imaginative way and instead followed a British and Unionist agenda.

The universality of this opinion means that fresh new layers of suspicion have been laid over ancient accretions of mistrust. A date, 10 June, may have been set for talks, but republicans are looking for proof that a new ceasefire would produce a more imaginative and flexible British response.

Republican suspicions so high that, even if it wished to, the army council would probably feel inhibited from declaring another ceasefire at this point. The fact is that it does not have to make such a move.

With the June date in everyone's diary, the IRA now has the luxury of being able to wait and see. London and Dublin have specified that Sinn Fein will not be allowed to enter the all-party talks without a ceasefire, but the IRA can pick its moment for such an announcement.

Technically, it could do so at midnight on 9 June. It could also set off another bomb or bombs. Rightly or wrongly, most people in Ireland have drawn from recent British government behaviour the moral that violence produces results.

Between now and 10 June, the republican community as a whole will be seeking signs that a new ceasefire would be followed by a new inclusive British approach. Those hopeful for such signs will have been dismayed by yesterday's scene, with its clear implication that exclusion is still the order of the day.