David McKittrick: Sinn Fein's return to power is a long way off

IRA violence is still there, in the form of routine 'punishments' on ghetto criminals
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The IRA long ago stopped dealing in weapons of mass destruction, turning its back on the old days when it killed on a large scale, dispatching almost half of the 3,700 dead of the Troubles.

The desire to avoid a return to those days is palpable and practically universal. That goes for the IRA itself, with both republican and security sources discounting any suggestion of any republican appetite for a return to war. Yet the organisation is still there, still routinely carrying out "punishments" on alleged ghetto criminals, and still responsible for incidents such as the recent attempted abduction of a republican dissident in Belfast.

That incident brought a heap of condemnation down on republican heads, with all other issues in the peace process now secondary to the question of why that organisation has still not given up its violent ways. It is, after all, ten years since the IRA first went on ceasefire. It was clear early on that the cessation was not permanent or unconditional, but the expectation was that IRA violence would gradually wither away.

It has been reduced dramatically in the most important way of all, in that IRA killings have become occasional rather than commonplace. The IRA is responsible for only a handful of murders in recent years: three-quarters of killings have been the work of extreme loyalists.

Yet that phrase - "only a handful of murders" - illustrates that the peace process is not a phenomenon of moral absolutes, but one of making pragmatic progress. Are things better than they were? Most definitely yes. Are they perfect? Most definitely no. So what is to be done? No one yet knows.

The chief republican response to this appears to boil down to pointing out that the IRA is not the only entity at fault: the loyalists are still at it on a far grander scale, while the British still have to answer for many alleged misdeeds. This is what is known in Belfast as what-aboutery. It is not much of an argument, being more of a holding position adopted until the storm blows over.

Republicans are experienced and adept at weathering such storms and will doubtless weather this one too. Yet something was oddly missing from the Sinn Fein annual conference in Dublin at the weekend.

On one reading it should have been an occasion for celebration. In the North Sinn Fein has achieved its long-held ambition to become the largest nationalist party, having vanquished the Social Democratic and Labour party. In the Irish Republic it is riding high in the opinion polls with Gerry Adams the most popular party leader. Everyone in Dublin expects the party to make gains in June's European and local council elections.

Such electoral success has its price, however. For one thing, the Irish Government has in recent months radically changed its public position on Sinn Fein, moving from the protective to the confrontational. Because the peace process has been based on inclusivity, successive Dublin governments have seen their role as sponsoring the republican movement's entry into politics, playing down its faults and misdemeanours. But the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, has now taken to reminding republicans that "there can be no halfway house between violence and democracy". His Justice Minister, Michael McDowell, has gone much further, accusing republicans of "vomit-making, stomach-churning hypocrisy".

Republicans dismiss this as "crude posturing" from a Government that fears Sinn Fein is set to eat away at its support. Most observers believe there is an element of electioneering.

Yet an unsettling realignment is taking place within Irish nationalism. The generality of nationalist voters, North and south, would not stand for any move to expel Sinn Fein from the process, yet it is possible that a new mood could develop, with a new level of pressure on republicans to address IRA violence.

The point at which morality overlaps with practical politics has arrived as the parties confront each other on how to form a new devolved government in Belfast. Sinn Fein longs to return to such an administration. November's Assembly elections decisively demonstrated that there will be no government without Gerry Adams, now beyond question the principal nationalist leader in the north. But those elections also established there can be no deal without the Rev Ian Paisley and his Democratic Unionist Party. David Trimble, once Unionism's central figure, has been relegated to second place.

Sinn Fein invested much political capital in Mr Trimble, delivering a third tranche of IRA decommissioning last October, but he lacks the numbers to make a new agreement with republicans. The only man with those numbers is Mr Paisley, for decades the hammer of nationalism, Catholicism, and above all republicanism. His new strength has given him a veto on devolution.

London and Dublin would not think of a deal that excluded republicans, but they and Sinn Fein realise that if he says no, then there is no deal, no government, no return to power for Sinn Fein. Some day, maybe in a year or two, there may be a Paisley-Adams agreement, but not yet.

If ever there is such a deal the IRA will have to make huge concessions to bring it about. In the meantime, republicans must hope that occasional electoral boosts will be enough to keep them going while the peace process languishes in the doldrums.