An IRA wolf adjusts his disguise

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GERRY ADAMS's 'positive response' to the British government's 'elucidation' of the Downing Street Declaration does not mean that peace is on the way. All it means is that the IRA wolf feels the need, right now, to adjust its sheep's clothing. Its bloodstained snout was showing, and even the most gullible were beginning to notice.

The sheep's clothing is, of course, Sinn Fein, the political and propaganda front of the IRA. The adjuster is the president of Sinn Fein, Gerry Adams. Mr Adams is, to our misfortune, an extremely skilled operator. Over the Downing Street Declaration, both on the run-up to it and in its aftermath, Mr Adams played a blinder. He succeeded in becoming widely accepted as essentially a man of peace, while remaining the known head of the political arm of a terrorist organisation. It would be hard to parallel that achievement, just as it would be hard to parallel the complacent fatuity of the two governments whose craven compliance made it possible.

All the same, even for such a virtuoso as Mr Adams, the conduct of a peace process in harness with a continuing campaign of terror is a demanding business. The peace fans were beginning to be a bit restive by the time five months of continuing IRA terror had followed a Downing Street Declaration which the poor suckers had been led to believe would result in a permanent cessation of violence. To keep his Orwellian peace process in being, for the benefit of the killers whom he serves, Gerry Adams needed some new tricks, and he has now come up with some plausible ones. These are contained in the present comedy of clarification/elucidation into which the British Government allowed itself to be drawn by Mr Adams, through his indefatigable intermediaries, John Hume and Albert Reynolds.

It worked this way: Mr Adams allowed it to be known, through that ever-dependable grapevine, that if he got positive answers to some of the questions which he would put to the British Government, he would make a conciliatory response to the British answers as a whole. From previous experience, he knew that both the Irish and British governments would fall for that one, since it would enable them to claim that the Downing Street peace process, for which they had made such extravagant claims, was beginning to show results.

Mr Adams was not disappointed. Sinn Fein's 20 questions were worked over by Irish and British officials, supplied with specifications by Mr Hume, briefed by Mr Adams, as to the minimum required to elicit a conciliatory response from Sinn Fein. Mr Adams did not ask for too much. He knows the British are not yet ready to abandon the guarantee to the majority in Northern Ireland that there shall be no constitutional change in the status of their province without their consent. For the moment, Mr Adams just wanted small things, which would give him an opportunity to sound conciliatory in reply, thus remaining central to the peace process and supplying decent cover for that unsightly snout.

The most welcome aspect of the replies, for Sinn Fein, is that London replied at all. Earlier, John Major had haughtily refused Sinn Fein's request for clarifications, saying 'take it or leave it'. Now he has meekly filled in the Sinn Fein questionnaire. To Sinn Fein-IRA, this change demonstrates a promising flexibility under the pressure of its own continuing armed struggle - the reality behind the peace process. Further demonstrations of flexibility will be sought, by the same well-tried methods.

A whiff of Sinn Fein-IRA's real thinking can be picked up from a report in yesterday's Irish Times of an interview with 'a senior republican source in West Belfast'. The source said: 'The British answers to our questions showed that at present they are not prepared to move on the key issues, which are the Unionist veto and their (British Government's) becoming persuaders (of the Unionists) for Irish unity. . . . We are nowhere near the conditions that would merit a ceasefire. (But) we don't want to be negative - that's why statements went out offering limited praise of the British response. . . . We have to keep the peace process alive, yet stress that the British haven't offered enough.'

In Northern Ireland, the Unionist community feels the screws tightening on it, through the continuation of the IRA's armed struggle and a peace process centring on Sinn Fein. Predictably, the loyalist paramilitaries are increasingly active. Overall, violent incidents, by both sets of paramilitaries, increasedin the four months following the Downing Street Declaration, compared with the equivalent months of the previous year. Last weekend, some loyalists were sniping at members of the RUC, while others were attempting a bombing operation against a Sinn Fein-IRA pub in Dublin.

The attempt was unsuccessful, but a young doorman, Martin Doherty, was shot in the course of it. His funeral rites provided the occasion for the most open IRA demonstrations Dublin has known for many years: probably since the foundation of the state, 73 years ago. The Irish Times ran a big photograph of the paramilitary funeral on its front page. The opposition denounced the Government and the gardai for failing to respond to this open paramilitary challenge to the authority of the state. In return, Martin McGuinness, at the interment of Doherty's remains, denounced the opposition leaders as 'quislings'. In that paramilitary context, that term has an ominous ring.

Sinn Fein has gained enormously in perceived legitimacy in the republic in the months since the Downing Street Declaration. Now Sinn Fein's masters, the IRA itself, are seeking to emerge openly as defenders of the people against the loyalist violence that they themselves have provoked and continue to provoke.

There is some daft talk at present of including the loyalist paramilitaries, as well as the IRA, in the peace process. What is really needed is to shake off the delusive peace process and deal with both sets of paramilitary godfathers, not as politicians to be conciliated but as terrorists to be brought under control. That may yet happen, but I fear that the growing violence will be allowed to get worse before the governments see through the peace process.