IRA Ceasefire: Ceasefire aims to cut pressure on Sinn Fein: Next week's truce may be seen as a cynical ploy but it is a ground-breaking move for republicans. David McKittrick reports

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If past experience is anything to go by, next week's three-day ceasefire will be both preceded and succeeded by waves of activity to make the point that the IRA can turn violence on and off like a tap.

People may well die before it takes effect and after it has ended, as the terrorists employ their cynical strategy of using killings and destruction to advance their political aims. And the fact that it will last only 72 hours will come as a blow to those optimists who had hoped for a much longer period.

The chief purpose behind it is to relieve the steadily mounting political pressure on Sinn Fein and the IRA. Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Fein, was lionised at the beginning of February when he visited the United States, and he and his movement have been the focus of international media attention for months on end.

The publicity and political gains were substantial, but they were dependent on the assumption that Mr Adams was in the business of making peace. As the weeks stretched into months, with Sinn Fein declining to respond one way or the other to the Downing Street declaration, the sense of disillusion with Sinn Fein has been palpable.

Then came the incidents of IRA violence. An off-duty detective was shot dead in front of his wife in Belfast; Heathrow was peppered with mortar bombs; an army helicopter was brought down by a mortar in Crossmaglen; and an SDLP representative was beaten up, apparently by the IRA.

The republicans are engaged in a long game, in which they continually proclaim their commitment to peace. But they are also clearly intent on using their traditional and treasured weapon, violence, to advance their aims.

One of their recent objectives has been to make the point that the peace process, as they define it, will be punctuated by incidents of IRA violence.

Events such as the Heathrow attacks were clearly intended to cause consternation to the authorities, and they have obviously caused great worry. The IRA will have seen that as an advance, but it will also be aware of the political price it has paid for such acts.

More and more people were questioning the republicans' bona fides and sincerity about seeking peace and sympathy was ebbing away; fewer people were accepting the republican contention that the British government was holding up the peace process.

Having played, and perhaps overplayed, its hand in terms of violent activity, the organisation is now in the business of displaying its other face. Next week's ceasefire is an attempt to shift some of the onus on to the British government and to reassure the critics that the republican interest in peace is genuine. It is a fair bet that the IRA envisages some months and even years of using this type of hard cop-soft cop approach.

But having said that, it has broken an important psychological barrier by declaring any ceasefire, even if it is to last only three days. While many outside observers will be tempted to dismiss this with contempt as the most cynical of gestures, the fact is that in republican terms it is a development of near- historic proportions.

It was in the late 1970s that Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness and other younger northern elements wrested control of the republican movement away from the southern- based old guard headed by Daithi O Conaill and Ruairi O Bradaigh.

That leadership's contacts with the British government had in 1974-75 produced a ceasefire which, the northerners argued, was disastrous for the IRA. They said Britain was not serious about reaching an agreement and was cleverly using the ceasefire to demoralise and destroy the IRA.

Mr Adams has since said that the Government 'probably came as near at that time to defeating the republican struggle than at any time during the last fourteen years'. Having survived that period, it has for years been the received wisdom within the IRA that ceasefires are extremely dangerous devices.

It has not declared any ceasefire since 1975, apart from the traditional three-day stoppages for Christmas and an unannounced lull in activity last September, when an important American delegation visited Belfast.

Last year the IRA agreed to a two-week ceasefire to facilitate face- to-face talks between Sinn Fein leaders and British officials, but the idea was not taken forward. That followed many months of contact with British officials, and the offer was made in response to a British offer of talks.

Next week's ceasefire is apparently being staged on a unilateral basis, with no guarantee of a British response. To the outside world this may seem like the tiniest of steps, but to republicans it has the status of an important ground-breaking move.

(Photograph omitted)