When the political doors stayed shut

Britain's insistence on elections in Northern Ireland seems to have been the last straw for the IRA which led to Friday's bomb in east London, says David McKittrick; 'Ceasefires need a dynamism to hold them; they have to be underpinned by political negotiation. Their popularity does not mean they are irreversible'

When the bombs stopped going off in August 1994, it was understandable that many people in Britain should have concluded, with great relief, that the troubles were over. Up close in Belfast, however, it always seemed more delicate and complicated than that. The ceasefire was a unilateral move by the IRA, with no negotiations or discussions with the British before it was declared. The organisation was therefore free to decide on its own terms and conditions: it has never spelt these out, but they have become clear over the months.

They are as follows. The IRA would remain in being, continuing to recruit and train, raise funds, and carry out surveillance on possible targets, both in Northern Ireland and in mainland Britain. It would carry out punishment beatings of those it considered "antisocial elements" and it reserved the right to shoot dead suspected drug dealers (and, indeed, has killed six of them since August 1994).

It would not decommission, destroy or hand over a single ounce of explosives, a single gun, a single bullet, since these would be acts of surrender. The IRA had called a cessation but it had disengaged, not surrendered. The republican movement had been promised entry into politics and negotiations. The IRA was waiting to see whether that promise was kept, and to give Gerry Adams's alternative dynamic a chance.

Adams had sold the ceasefire to the IRA on the basis that it would get the republican movement into serious talks with the British. His conclusion was that while the IRA had tremendous negative power through its bombs, it was not strong enough to achieve a military victory and force a British withdrawal.

The argument went that the terrorist campaign had achieved a great deal: republicans are fond of saying that it had provided the "dynamic" for change. The proposition was that an alternative dynamic existed, since ending the violence would create an international coalition to press the republican and nationalist cause.

The contention was that a cessation would get Sinn Fein to the conference table with the British and all the other parties to the conflict. It was not anticipated that this would lead to an early British withdrawal, but the expectation was that a strong nationalist bloc would have a powerful say. Adams would be at the table, along with John Hume of the SDLP and the Irish government's then Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds. Also there, or thereabouts, would be President Clinton, as well as influential strands of Irish-American opinion. Together this bloc would win many of the arguments and would have considerable clout.

Adams was able to produce evidence that a cessation would lead to entry into such political processes. Hume had publicly stuck his neck out by issuing a series of joint statements with Adams and by proclaiming his belief that the republicans could be persuaded to turn away from violence. Clinton had shown he accepted this by dropping the 20-year ban on Adams entering the United States - despite intense British pressure. Reynolds had pushed John Major into signing the Downing Street declaration, a document which indicated that a peaceful republican movement would be allowed into talks.

Hume, Reynolds and Clinton had signalled that they were prepared to stop treating Irish republicans as pariahs, just as soon as the guns fell silent. The British were more reluctant about this approach, but had none the less sent a strong signal in the Downing Street declaration.

This was a new type of approach to the IRA. The organisation had not defeated the British, but over a quarter of a century it had successfully resisted all attempts to crush it. Yet while it had become adept at fighting the army and the police, it was less sure about how to deal with offers rather than assaults.

Crucially, Adams offered the prospect of political advance and an honourable exit from violence, the key concept being that it would be not a surrender but a historic change of direction. It took Adams years to formulate his proposals, and it took the IRA many months to reach the decision to announce, as it did in August 1994, its "complete cessation of military operations". The fact that it took so long is a telling indication that there were many doubts and opponents at various levels of the organisation. Although Sinn Fein is to most intents and purposes a public body, the IRA is an enclosed order, a profoundly militaristic group. When Sinn Fein leaders refer in private to "the army", they mean not the British Army but the IRA.

The whole exercise began promisingly enough. Reynolds, Hume and Adams shook hands publicly in Dublin within a week of the ceasefire announcement. Adams did several triumphant laps of honour in the States, where Clinton received him at the White House and allowed him to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars. Reynolds set up the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation, formally welcoming Sinn Fein to the political processes and bringing handshakes with every important political figure in the republic. Adams and his colleague, Martin McGuinness, held rounds of exploratory talks with British officials and later with ministers. Everywhere, doors which had been closed to the republicans swung open.

But these, though important, were warm-ups for the main event of inter- party talks. There were also ominous signs. Reynolds fell as Taoiseach to be replaced by the less sympathetic John Bruton. Adams kept pressing for the opening of all-party talks, but in the spring of last year Sir Patrick Mayhew, Northern Ireland Secretary, laid out a specific precondition: some IRA weapons would first have to be decommissioned.

It was a full eight months after the ceasefire before Mayhew finally agreed to meet Adams, who was by that stage warning publicly of a crisis in the peace process. He quoted Seamus Heaney - "A space has been created in which hope can grow" - to indicate that republican patience was not infinite.

By August the ceasefire was showing signs of increasing strain. A source close to Adams, pressing for talks, said then: "There's a political vacuum. We need an inclusive agenda. We've had a strategy of alternative initiatives - the Dublin government, Hume, going to Washington, South Africa and so on. The trouble is, it's a year on, people aren't interested in Gerry going to Washington any more."

A Dublin source, worried that the British government was being dangerously complacent, said at that stage: "The ceasefires are a dynamic. You need a certain dynamism to hold them and they have to be underpinned by political negotiation. The fact that they are so popular doesn't necessarily mean that they are therefore irreversible. We can't rely on the threat of public anger to keep violence permanently off the screen."

This newspaper reported: "The price of peace will be eternal vigilance - the most careful handling of all the minor dramas which might turn into a real crisis. Above all, critical judgements have continually to be made about the state of play within both republicanism and loyalism, and a watch kept for the rise of any new hawkish elements.

"A genuine worry for many of the other participants in the peace process is the level of competence displayed by the Government. Everyone - including republicans - would be happier if London held to a more consistent line and displayed more sureness of touch in its handling of what, a year on, is a delicate process which will continue to require judicious, intricate micro-management if it is to lead to lasting peace."

It is now clear that Dublin was right to worry about the state of opinion within the republican movement, and that London made an inaccurate assessment of how much strain it would bear. Last month the prior decommissioning precondition was dropped by Major, but it was immediately replaced by the proposal for an election.

From London's point of view this may have appeared a skilful move to circumvent Unionist conditions for talks, but it also meant another considerable delay before getting to the table. Major would clearly not have gone for an election had he believed it would push the IRA back to violence: obviously the intelligence analysis at his disposal was badly, tragically wrong.

This was probably the last straw for the IRA. It is not difficult to persuade the republicans that the British are up to their old duplicitous tricks again. Prior decommissioning, which had been presented by London as an article of faith, was simply dropped in favour of a new precondition: republicans saw this as proof that the weapons issue was used in a blatantly tactical way, its real purpose being delay.

The election of David Trimble as leader of the Ulster Unionist Party had raised unionism's stock, but Major's diminishing Commons majority increased republican suspicions that his policy on the peace process was increasingly influenced by the desire for Unionist support in the division lobbies.

Probably above all else, however, there was the feeling in republican circles that the British were not serious about bringing Sinn Fein in from the cold. The introduction of the election idea meant that, 17 months on from the ceasefire, the conference table was as remote as ever.

To republicans the British seemed intent not on doing serious business with them but on belittling them, on resisting the demand for talks, on stringing them along, possibly on engineering an IRA split to be followed by a security mop-up. Adams had no convincing answer to the argument that he had relied on the British to bring him to the table and had been let down by them.

Feeling it had been denied entry into politics, the IRA thus took the murderous step of bombing Docklands in London. It is a profoundly depressing thought that it did so from the same motivation which, a quarter of a century ago, led it to take up the gun in the first place: the conclusion that rational argument got it nowhere, that it had nothing to lose, and that the only thing Britain understands is the use of force.

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