IRA Ceasefire: Delicate balance of risks and opportunities: Judgement and goodwill will be needed to solve logistical problems

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NORTHERN Ireland faces a moment without exact precedent - a moment alive with both opportunities and dangers.

The ending of the IRA campaign will pose a great many logistical and political problems. While the ceasefire is in itself a momentous step, it will take a great deal of luck, judgement, goodwill and co-operation to get through the coming days and weeks safely.

Even allowing for the political hurdles that will be posed by the deeply suspicious Unionist politicians, the Protestant reaction could take a number of forms. The violent Ulster Defence Association announced this week that it was out for blood, a threat which everyone takes seriously. Since its victims are usually drawn at random from the Catholic community, the security forces have found it impossible to protect every possible target.

This situation could change, however, if the army and police were abruptly freed from what they have always seen as their main task, that of coping with the IRA campaign. In the absence of republican violence, troops and policemen would suddenly be available for anti-loyalist activity.

At the same time, the security forces will have to take care how they go about such work. If Protestant anxieties remain high, the residents of hardline loyalist districts may not take kindly to the sight of a heavy police presence in their areas, especially if the republican ghettos are said to be only lightly policed.

The trick now for the British government will be to reassure Unionists that their position is secure while doing nothing to put the ceasefire in jeopardy. This will be difficult, since so many uncertainties and unresolved issues remain on the republican side.

One of these is whether IRA discipline will hold. At the moment all the signs are that the ceasefire order will be obeyed, but the ending of previous IRA campaigns have tended to throw up 'ultras' who refuse to lay down their arms. A related question concerns the Irish National Liberation Army, a small and unpredictable group independent of the IRA. The assumption is that IRA leaders have had a quiet word with the INLA to make clear that they expect to see an end to the INLA campaign also.

In the coming weeks much will depend on how the security forces handle policing in Catholic areas, especially republican strongholds. The message from security circles has been that a heavy army presence would be made redundant if police officers were not under threat of IRA attack. It seems, therefore, that new patterns of patrolling will be put into effect, though the RUC will doubtless be careful not to drop security to a level which might put its officers at risk.

Sir Hugh Annesley, Chief Constable of the RUC, indicated some time ago that the level of police and Army activity would depend on threat assessments made on a day-to-day basis. Assuming the ceasefire has immediate effect, this should mean a dramatic drop in security force activity in republican areas.

There will inevitably be disputed and controversial incidents and accidents ahead. How they are handled will play a major role in setting the atmosphere. One suggestion has been that the monitoring of such events will in part be handled by the permanent Anglo-Irish secretariat at Maryfield, near Belfast, where Irish civil servants have been based since 1985.

One central issue, apparently completely unresolved, concerns the IRA's stores of weaponry and explosives. The word in some republican circles - that 'not one gun' is to be handed over - poses the question of how, if the IRA retains its armoury, it can come to be regarded as an unarmed organisation. Perhaps significantly, neither British nor Irish government ministers have dwelt on this issue in recent months.

Yet another dilemma concerns the fate of about 900 republican prisoners in Northern Ireland's jails. Downing Street has ruled out an amnesty, but the IRA's attitude is that it is inconceivable to think of the armed conflict ending with hundreds of its members left to spend long years behind bars. It is technically possible to release prisoners at the stroke of a pen, if the political will were there. The question is unlikely to be resolved so simply, but some bridging of the gap will clearly be needed.

One factor which may prove a useful incentive in nudging violent loyalists towards a ceasefire of their own is the prospect that the roughly 450 loyalist prisoners might also qualify for early release in that event.

(Photograph omitted)