Gerry Adams called on breakaway republican groups yesterday to abandon their armed struggle and begin decommissioning.
In his strongest condemnation of the Real IRA, the Sinn Fein president claimed its tactics were futile. He called for it to disband and added: "I am mindful they will accuse people like me of having sold out but I have no real concerns about that accusation.
"We are wedded to our republican objectives. We are pursuing a path which I think will bring about the goals have struggled for a very, very long time and I think those that still involve themselves in small micro groups should desist.
"I think the imperative, and the popular view, is to support the Sinn Fein peace strategy."
His words are part of a carefully orchestrated attempt by all sides in the peace process to isolate paramilitary groups – also including the Ulster Defence Association and the Ulster Freedom Fighters – opposed to the Good Friday Agreement. A British government source said: "Adams has not gone this far before. It's all part of the process."
The Sinn Fein leader's comments also reflect fears that the Real IRA is planning terrorist attacks in Northern Ireland and England designed to destabilise the strengthening political settlement in the province. Tony Blair's official spokesman said the Government was "in no way complacent" over the Real IRA's capacity to launch attacks. He said: "There is a continuing threat from dissident republicans, just as there continues to be a threat from loyalist groups".
In the Commons, the Prime Minister warned MPs that the "splinter groups" posed a risk but insisted that none should wield a veto over moving towards a "more peaceful era".
He was responding to the Tory leader, Iain Duncan Smith, who said: "The threat from dissident groups like the Real IRA remains chillingly high."
Mr Adams also dismissed suggestions that the IRA had been forced into the move by the worldwide horror over the 11 September terrorist atrocities. "The IRA is immune to pressure from any quarter except from its own base. The IRA could have hunkered down and simply sustained its cessation," he said.
Mr Adams acknowledged that the IRA's move would cause real "pain" among some grassroots republican activists, but stressed that it was important that the movement remained united.
"It is OK to be against this move but what we have to be is united and strategic and looking to the future and committed to our republican cause," Mr Adams said.
"This is big because it does cause pain to republicans. Republicans, as agents of change, are prepared to take pain on themselves and strain on themselves in order to loosen up and a free up a movement which can resolve all of the issues that need to be resolved."Reuse content