IRA ceasefire adds to uncertainty

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THE IRA ceasefire expected early next month will take everyone involved in the Northern Ireland conflict into uncharted waters.

The situation will be alive with possibility and fraught with danger. But it will not be what the British and Irish governments have worked for over the past year - a republican renunciation of


The IRA's guns may be temporarily silenced, but the possibility of a resumption of the campaign will hang in the air. The expectation is that a ceasefire statement will signal a pause in violence, although it may follow previous declarations that republicans 'reserve the right' to retaliate.

It is not known if it will set out a specific period or not give a time limit. Either way it can be expected to convey the message that prolonging the ceasefire will depend on the British government.

What response the IRA hopes to get remains unclear. Although some believe there are differences within the Dublin cabinet, the two governments appear solid on the point that Sinn Fein should not be fully admitted into the political processes in advance of a renunciation of violence. This will not be on offer. There will be a suspension rather than a cessation.

The question will be whether this should be regarded as a republican trap or as a window of opportunity leading to a permanent stoppage.

Unionists and others will argue, as the Rev Ian Paisley already has, that the ceasefire is a phoney exercise which should be scorned.

Others will take the line suggested by Irish-American politician Bruce Morrison, who said this week: 'If a substantial step is made and it is not 100 per cent, it ought not to be treated as if it were 0 per cent.' This echoed the words of the Irish foreign minister, Dick Spring, in March: 'If they offer a temporary ceasefire, we will want to find a way of building on that without making any concessions to them.'

The republicans will be seeking ways of winning just such concessions. They can hardly hope to get to the conference table without renouncing violence, or change the two governments' definition of self-determination as expressed in the Downing Street declaration.

In the short term, the republicans may be seeking to open direct lines of communications to the two governments, and to elicit gestures of British goodwill in areas such as prison regulations and the treatment of republicans held prisoner.

They will certainly wish to ensure that an IRA ceasefire would mean a run-down of the heavy army and police presence in republican areas.

Most observers say this has been signalled by official comments which suggest that the Royal Ulster Constabulary would not need Army protection on the streets if they were not coming under daily IRA attack.

But the IRA is not the only source of violence in Northern Ireland, and there remains the important question of how loyalist paramilitary groups will react.

There have been signs that the leadership of one, the Ulster Volunteer Force, has been adopting a more thoughtful attitude. This could lead to them responding with their own ceasefire.

However, the other main group, the Ulster Defence Association, is more erratic and an upsurge in loyalist activity cannot be ruled out. This could destabilise the ceasefire; or it could strengthen Sinn Fein's hand by portraying the loyalists as the prime source of violence.

The loyalist paramilitary response will depend on the attitude of the Protestant community, and this has yet to crystallise.

One strand of opinion is that it is a genuine opportunity worth exploring; another is deep cynicism about the IRA's motivation, and a fear that the ceasefire could be a prelude to significant government concessions to the republicans.

Within the republicans there is no immediate sign of a split. But the longer a ceasefire goes on, the more difficulties there may be for the IRA should it decide to resume the campaign.

At some stage a disgruntled element could emerge, arguing that the IRA was losing its capacity to wage war, while the British Government showed no sign of giving republicans what they want. At this stage, some pessimists predict, a split is a possibility.

The past year has seen much volatility in Northern Ireland. A ceasefire seems destined to usher in a new phase of greater uncertainty, and even more intense activity.