Why the IRA has no alternative

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AFTER years of vowing that it would never declare unilateral ceasefires, the IRA has allowed itself to be manoeuvred into a position where it has no real alternative but to declare a halt in its campaign. Militarily it remains a potent and dangerous force; politically, after years of intricate negotiation involving Belfast, Dublin, London and Washington, its back is to the wall. The ball, to switch metaphors, is in its court.

A new path opened up when constitutional nationalism, firstly in the shape of the SDLP leader, John Hume, offered to take Gerry Adams at his word. Mr Adams had for years been declaring that he wanted peace, but as the IRA campaign continued his stance was derided as hypocritical.

At first no one could work out how the yawning gap between violent and non-violent nationalism could be bridged. But a real opening existed, buried under a mountain of cynicism and scepticism. That opening has brought the republican movement to a stark, historic choice.

For more than 10 years the movement operated its policy of Armalite in one hand, ballot paper in the other. Now it must choose. Opting for the Armalite means pursuing the traditional IRA campaign of bombing and shooting in the hope of sapping British will and forcing a withdrawal. It has kept up such a campaign for the past quarter of a century, but it has not brought victory.

Its other option is a political path. Sinn Fein has existed as a substantial political party for more than 10 years, but IRA violence meant it was treated as a pariah. In the past few years, however, a new culture developed: that of talking. The British government had extensive secret contacts with Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein while Mr Hume spoke publicly to Mr Adams. The bombs were still going off, but there was also debate.

Unionists condemned such contacts, but nationalist Ireland gradually accepted them. The Irish government began to treat the republicans with some courtesy, the Catholic Church lending its blessing to this approach. Then there were the British government's secret talks, the Downing Street declaration, and finally clarification.

Although the killing continued, Sinn Fein began to realise that constitutional nationalists were prepared to treat them seriously. Mr Hume, the Dublin government, Cardinal Cahal Daly and Irish-Americans all maintained their position that republicans would be welcomed into respectable political society as soon as they abandoned violence. The clear message was that republicans were not being called on to make an abject surrender: ending the violence would not leave them as a downtrodden, oppressed and impotent minority. No one would guarantee them that they would soon achieve their ultimate aims, but ending their campaign could open new doors and bring influence in Dublin and Washington.

A quarter of a century of the efforts of the Army, the Royal Ulster Constabulary and MI5, involving thousands of men and millions of pounds, have not brought the IRA to the point of ceasefire; rather, it has come to it by being persuaded that there is an alternative to armed struggle.

Much of the impetus for all this has come from Mr Hume, who is now being congratulated by some Irish newspapers which were initially critical of him. In the coming weeks and months he will receive much praise for his creativity and foresight.

But while constitutional nationalism has held out its hands to the republicans, none of this process has involved anyone pulling the wool over Mr Adams's eyes. He would have known, when he started using the rhetoric of peace, that sooner or later his sincerity would be put to the test, and that eventually his movement would have to choose between violence and politics.

The war is not over yet, for the expected ceasefire will bring new problems and difficulties. But it is possible to believe that, if all goes well, the role of Mr Adams will be reassessed, and that within a year or two the evil man of violence could become the peace-seeking visionary. The fact that that possibility exists demonstrates just how important a moment this could be in Irish history.