If it isn't peace, is it war?

Manchester bomb blast raises a serious question about the peace process
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The Independent Online
So what, after spilling the blood of all those shocked, bewildered, terrorised people on the streets of Manchester, does the IRA do for an encore? It is unlikely it will attempt to restart all-out war, though the bomb runs the risk of awakening the sleeping giant of loyalist paramilitarism.

Most likely it will either sit back now, or perhaps stage another attack or two in England and then desist for a while. It must figure that intermittent bombing attacks in England, at judicious intervals, concentrate British minds wonderfully.

It appears to believe that it is free to deliver its messages in two different ways: either via Sinn Fein, or in the form of explosive devices. The belief that Britain pays far more attention to the latter is etched deep in the republican psyche.

The best guess is that the message it sought to deliver on Saturday, drawn in blood on the streets of Manchester, is that it is not abandoning the idea of a peace process and still wants to talk. But it scorns the talks which began in Belfast last week as being much too weighted towards a Unionist agenda, and wants much more far-reaching negotiations.

There are several causes for dismay in this. One is that the talks set- up, as negotiated between London and Dublin, represents by any objective criteria a reasonable basis for discussions, with all participants free to raise whatever they choose.

In particular, the two governments agreed on an important political role for the former US Senator George Mitchell. This fulfilled one of Sinn Fein's strategic aims, which is to internationalise the problem and involve the United States as closely as possible in the Irish question.

A second cause for dismay is the apparent IRA belief that it can effect change to such arrangements through the placing of bombs which hurt Mancunians. One unfortunate precedent which may well have encouraged this belief was the fact that the Government, in the aftermath of February's Docklands bombing, finally did what republicans demanded and set a date for the opening of talks. In vain has the Government denied that the bomb produced the date: rightly or wrongly, the widespread assumption in Belfast is that in that instance violence paid off.

In the early 1980s the republicans developed the "Armalite and ballot- box" strategy, working on the theory of making advances through a carefully calculated blend of violence and politics. The IRA may now be reverting to this. But Sinn Fein, the other side of the republican coin, knows that the day of that dual strategy is long since past. During the 1994-96 ceasefire Sinn Fein was highly successful in winning friends and influencing people, but all its new relationships were posited on the basis that the war was over. It was striking, in the wake of the Docklands bomb, to hear previously supportive American politicians, and celebrities, say they would give no more help until the cessation was restored.

The Arndale Centre bomb inflicted much damage on Sinn Fein, moving it back towards its old pariah status. The terms for its entry into political talks may well be made tougher. Arms de-commissioning will move even further up the agenda.

In other words the bomb was not a complement to Sinn Fein's political efforts but a severe setback for them. It has also sown much confusion in the republican movement as a whole, where supporters were this weekend having trouble working out the IRA's game plan. Any other organisation would at this point be splitting into two parts, hawks and doves.

But there is an almost mystical relationship linking Sinn Fein and the IRA: anyone who thinks there is no connection between them is wrong; so too is anyone who believes there is no difference between them. The relationship is based on history, common experience, shared suffering and close family ties.

Both the militarists and the politicos, and the 40 shades in-between, are keenly aware that separation could bring a bitter conflict which could set back the republican cause for a generation. A period of internal debate and argument is therefore more likely than an outright split.

In any event, a split in which Adams led part of the movement into politics is highly unlikely to enhance the prospects of eventual peace. Figures and factions have walked away from the IRA periodically since the days of Eamon de Valera. Sometimes these defections caused momentary damage, but in each case the militaristic core left behind retained the capacity for violence.

The project pursued by Adams in recent years is an unprecedented one, in that it has been aimed at bringing the republican movement en bloc into politics. The prize was to include everyone, this time leaving no violent rump with the potential to start the killing all over again. His departure now would leave a freestanding IRA held back by fewer constraints. He would become just another despised mainstream politician with no influence over the IRA; and the logic of that is more bombs.

But even assuming there is to be no split, there must now be a period of outworking within the republican movement, since the Manchester bomb shows it to be an entity without a clear policy. The IRA is in charge and believes that bombing will help do the trick. Adams has a peace process strategy and has strong support among the wider movement, but evidently does not have his hands on the levers of power. Ahead lies a defining period, in which the military elite and the advocates of the peace process hotly dispute the future direction of their movement.