IRA refuses to give up its weapons

The statement was characteristically oblique - one every point but one - writes David McKittrick
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The Independent Online
IN RECENT years, IRA statements have often been as delphic as some of Seamus Heaney's cloudier works, deliberately entwining hard and soft elements with the intention of creating ambiguity.

Yesterday's statement was no exception. The point which at first sight leaps out of it is the blunt assertion on guns: "Let us make it clear there will be no decommissioning by the IRA."

Although there have been similar stark declarations in the past, some had hoped that the Good Friday agreement would lead to a softening of the standard republican line that decommissioning was only ever conceivable in the event of a final settlement.

The IRA follows its own dogged logic in saying that the agreement does not amount to a settlement, in that this would involve "the end of British rule in Ireland and the exercise of the right of the people of Ireland to national self-determination".

The logic runs that while the agreement "does mark a significant development", the dual referendums to be held on 22 May do not amount to self-determination and the British presence will remain. Therefore, no decommissioning is to be expected.

While this implacable refusal to move on the issue was assailed from various quarters yesterday, it is unlikely to be altered in the foreseeable future, partly because the position is in line with the IRA's own theory.

There are also practical reasons for maintaining it, one of which is that any handover or destruction of weaponry would probably cause uproar, and almost certainly a split, in the ranks of the IRA's foot soldiers.

The refusal also carries the communal endorsement of the Belfast Catholic ghettos, such as the Falls Road, where majority opinion, while clearly in favour of the peace process, is just as clearly in favour of holding on to the weapons as an insurance policy against future calamities.

The mirror-image of this is to be found across the peaceline in the Protestant Shankill, where loyalist paramilitary groups and the back streets from which they spring also believe that maintaining their armouries is the prudent thing to do.

But the IRA statement is also notable for what it does not say. It studiously avoids direct comment on whether Sinn Fein members should take up their seats in the new Belfast assembly to be set up under the agreement.

In doing so it provides implicit endorsement for the direction being taken by Sinn Fein, which appears to be readying itself for a historic change in its constitution and, arguably, in its general psychology.

A week on Sunday the party is to hold a special conference which will be asked to drop the traditional ban on Sinn Fein members taking their seats in any "partitionist" Belfast assembly. The IRA has just effectively given its blessing to the change.

The statement also sought to absolve Sinn Fein from being held responsible for the lack of arms decommissioning, declaring this to be "a matter only for the IRA, to be decided upon and pronounced upon by us". This is presumably to allow Sinn Fein leaders to say that any complaints on this score should be referred to the IRA and not to them.