Credibility gap cripples Adams

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The Independent Online

The state of play within the republican movement is a mystery - to the British and Irish governments, to the intelligence agencies, to outside observers, and even to many republicans, writes David McKittrick.

There appears to be an internal redefinition going on which involves a diminution of the status of the Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams and a return to the old violent ways. But the senior reaches of republicanism are a black box, and it is not clear whether new leaders are in the ascendancy, or whether opinion shifted during the course of the ceasefire.

Mr Adams was the horse backed by John Hume, the Dublin government and the Clinton administration, as the man who was open to a new non-violent course and who had the stature to deliver the republican movement. It seemed, with the IRA's "complete cessation" of August 1994, that he had done so.

Mr Adams represented what happened then as himself taking a political package to the IRA and persuading them to accept it. Some observers accepted that this was a reasonably accurate reflection of what happened; some said cynically that it was play-acting, arguing that Adams and associates such as Martin McGuinness were actually the leaders of the IRA as well as the leaders of Sinn Fein.

A year and a half on, it is impossible to say which version is nearer the truth. There is certainly a fair amount of IRA-Sinn Fein dual membership, and the two are bound together by family ties: a close relative of Mr Adams, for example, is said to be a senior militant. Many Sinn Fein leaders, including Mr Adams and Mr Guinness, have been to jail for IRA offences.

Yet the fact that Mr Adams was evidently taken by surprise by the Docklands bombing provides strong evidence that the leaderships of Sinn Fein and the IRA are not one seamless entity. Mr Adams shows no real sign of being in command of the IRA, for it has dealt grievous blows to his credibility.

In London, Dublin and Washington his status is being reassessed, and the conclusion is almost bound to be that he will command less respect. The IRA has thus harmed its political wing, and its foremost political advocate. The optimists will hope that Mr Adams and Sinn Fein have not lost the argument for a political approach; pessimists will fear that the IRA has concluded that politics are useless, and simply rededicated itself to another long war.