Easter message from IRA keeps strategic options open

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The Independent Online

Ireland correspondent

The intentions of the IRA remained shrouded in mystery yesterday, with political opinion sharply divided on the meaning of the organisation's Easter message to the republican faithful.

The statement contained an unconcealed threat of violence in the future, but also said the IRA remained ready to help in developing the conditions which will allow for a meaningful negotiations process, free from preconditions of any kind."

The Ulster Unionist Party interpreted this as an indication that no new ceasefire is to be expected before 10 June, the date set for all-party talks. But the SDLP leader, John Hume, said he saw a chink of light in the mention of possible negotiations.

The IRA has carried out no attacks in Britain or Northern Ireland since the four London bombing incidents which followed the end of its 17-month ceasefire last month. While this is interpreted by some as a positive sign that the organisation is not intent on a full-scale resumption of violence, it seems unlikely that this stance will be continued indefinitely.

The general uncertainty was encapsulated by the Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams, who said: "It's very difficult to interpret or translate the situation, because we all live with the a reality of an end to the cessation, and therefore one could hear on the next news broadcast reports of some IRA operation."

The signs are that even Sinn Fein, which once acknowledged itself as the IRA's political wing, has been cut out of the decision-making loop. The general mood is Sinn Fein circles, largely as a result of this, is sombre and pessimistic.

Mr Hume's positive approach is based, he explained, on the IRA indication that it remained ready to develop conditions which would allow for meaningful negotiations. He said he and Mr Adams were engaged in intense activity to bring about a new ceasefire.

Given the amount of mistrust in the air, there is speculation that some of this activity could involve attempts to have the US government or others help guarantee that a ceasefire would lead to talks which were substantive rather than an attempt to pillory the republicans and merely to demand arms de-commissioning.

However, the Ulster Unionist leader, David Trimble, said Mr Hume was clutching at straws. He said Sinn Fein had one last chance to enter talks, but that during the period of the cessation they had reacted with endless prevarication and finally with bombs.

His colleague, Ken Maginnis, added: "Sinn Fein are lost because they don't have an agenda that can be met through the democratic process.

"They are beaten because they don't have a mandate. They will simply be an ugly boil on the landscape of politics for many years to come."

t Figures from almost all parts of the Irish political landscape paid tribute yesterday to Ron Brown, the US Commerce Secretary who died in a plane crash in Croatia on Wednesday, for his role in the American initiative to increase investment in Northern Ireland.