Bruce Anderson: Tony Blair's euphoria at the IRA's 'historic' statement may yet prove premature

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The Independent Online

Second, we have been here before. On Thursday, the IRA was offering nothing new. Indeed, the undertakings fell short of those required by the Good Friday Agreement. In effect, the Provos were trying to sell the same horse for the third or fourth time, which makes one doubt whether Mr Blair was wise to reach so eagerly for his chequebook.

It could be argued that the Prime Minister is showing superior wisdom in concentrating on the big picture rather than on the small print. The IRA would not humiliate itself. It was bound to insist on marching away from the battlefield with its head held high. But is it marching away? For that to be true, two conditions would have to be met, neither of which can be inferred from last Thursday's text.

The first is an end to criminality. Outside the US, Sinn Fein is the best-funded political party in the world because it has grown rich on crime. Nor is this merely a matter of bank raids. Money-laundering, protection rackets, smuggling diesel fuel, milking drug-dealers' profits: the IRA has created a culture of lawlessness in some of the Catholic areas of Northern Ireland. Will that now cease? Until it does, Northern Ireland cannot become a normal society.

That raises another question. Does the IRA now accept that Northern Ireland is entitled to become a normal society, deriving legitimacy from democratic consent? That was the principle which underlay the peace process, and Sinn Fein's claim to become a normal political party. Is the IRA/Sinn Fein now sincere in subscribing to that philosophy of government?

We shall see. In the interim, recent events do not inspire confidence. Over the last few months there has been a lot of snarling from IRA sources, threatening a return to war. Quasi-military exercises, dummy runs, the activation of sleepers: the pike has been stirring in the thatch.

This has alarmed some senior civil servants in charge of such matters, who took it for granted that there would be Islamic terrorism in Britain and who did not want to fight terror on two fronts.

Some of those to whom such persons talked told them that they were being wet. After 11 September, the terms of terrorist trade had changed irrevocably, and the Provos knew it. If they had gone back to war, every man's hand would have been against them, in Washington and Dublin as well as in London.

But the British authorities were not convinced, as the IRA knows. London's reaction to Thursday was tinged with relief as well as overblown with euphoria. As we should have learnt by now, and as has been demonstrated over the past three weeks in dealing with the other threat, terrorists must be confronted with stout hearts. Fear only encourages them. The British Government has done little to discourage the IRA.

Instead, it has been pursuing a political strategy, that the lure of ministerial office would ultimately prove irresistible. For the past few years, some of the leading strategists in the Northern Ireland Office have been arguing that there would never be a durable political settlement until it was negotiated between Sinn Fein and Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionists. They had an indispensable advantage. They could not be outflanked by hardliners.

For the past year, those strategists have been at work, especially with Mr Paisley. As his ninth decade approached, the old monster was beginning to display a wholly new, entirely unexpected, somewhat alarming personality trait: a desire to be liked. Until recently, he had revelled in his pariah status. His motto seemed to be: "Nobody likes me; I don't care."

Recently, however, he has been telling people about the new atmosphere in Westminster. When he first came to Parliament, he says, he was widely shunned. Now, everyone is coming up and wanting to be friends.

In response, he has seemed to become more amenable. The Government suggested that instead of requiring the IRA to disband, it could become an old boys' club. Mr Paisley did not reject the idea. Before Thursday, ministers were hoping to start talks on reviving Ulster's devolved government early in the new year. The DUP's initial response raised their hopes.

Since then, there has been some resiling. In the Unionist community, the IRA statement was received with scepticism: Mr Paisley's apparent lack of intransigence, with widespread disbelief. Some of his own supporters have been reminding him that they did not vote for him in order to help IRA men to come back to government.

This Unionist reaction is likely to intensify when some of the details of the Government's talks with Sinn Fein become more widely known. London has been trying to entice the Shinners by offering to devolve police and justice to the Northern Ireland Executive. Sinn Fein has been told that one of those ministries would be its. and that there would be no obstacles to former IRA men joining the police reserve. Most Unionists have not forgiven the British Government for depriving the Royal Ulster Constabulary of its honoured name. The thought that those who plotted to murder RUC men would be able to join its successor organisation would turn almost every Unionist stomach.

Mr Paisley may have less room for manoeuvre than the British Government has hoped. He may be obliged to rediscover the merits of "no surrender", and to remind Mr Blair that he is the perpetual holder of the pulitzer prize for intransigence.

If Mr Paisley does rebuff Mr Blair, the Government will not readily take no for an answer. The Dups will have to raise their game. When David Trimble was the province's leading Unionist, he built a formidable staff. The DUP has no equivalent. On religious grounds, some of its senior figures still refuse to read Sunday newspapers. Nor are they good at following Hansard; They often do not seem to know what Peter Hain has been saying in Parliament.

Equally, they are not in the habit of reading The Irish Times. They still have the mentality of small-town politicians obsessed by the politics of the parish pump, in a not particularly agreeable parish. They may have inherited the leadership of Ulster Unionism; they have still to prove that they are worthy of it.

The whole situation is fraught with uncertainty. One of the wisest observations ever made on human affairs came in the form of an Irishism: "Well, this pig does not weigh as much as I thought it did, but then again, I never thought it would." It will be many anxious months before we can tell the weight of Thursday's pig.