Dressed to kill the old image: The leaders look more respectable, but Sinn Fein militants still applaud the IRA, says David McKittrick

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THERE is something different about the Sinn Fein Ard Chomhairle (Executive Committee) on the platform of their annual conference this year: all the men are wearing suits or jackets and ties. Normally most of them are as scruffy as the delegates or the journalists, but this year they are making a real effort.

Gone are the days of the dowdy jumper. Lucilita Breatnach, a female committee member, is impressively power-dressed, complete with padded shoulders. Richard McAuley, the press officer, has a new blue jacket; somebody explains that it really belongs to the party chairman, Tom Hartley, but it doesn't fit Hartley any more.

Are the subversives becoming respectable? These people used to look like revolutionaries: now they look like they're going for a job interview. Could it be for entry into politics?

In addition to the sartorial signals, there are other indications of change. The banner behind the executive says 'Peace through national self-determination'. At either side of the platform, prominence is given not to the traditional Sinn Fein logo but to the depiction of a white dove carrying a Sinn Fein streamer in its beak. Have the hawks become doves?

Saturday, the first day of the Ard Fheis, left the impression of a hard line. Gerry Adams, in his lengthy presidential address, restated many of the traditional Republican positions, giving nothing away either to Unionists or the British government. This led to downbeat Sunday newspaper reports to the tune that the Republicans appeared to be rejecting the Downing Street Declaration, on which so many hopes for peace are pinned. The swift Republican reaction was to have several executive members make rather softer speeches yesterday.

Internally, the Ard Fheis was about reassuring the grassroots that progress was being made, that all was under control, that no passes were being sold and that there were no splits in the ranks.

Externally, the aim was to project a certain amount of flexibility and openness. The Republicans have done rather well recently, Gerry Adams wowing them in the States and reappearing on Irish television and radio after two decades of exclusion. The massed ranks of television cameras testified to the fact that he is the focus of everyone's attention.

The Dublin government and the SDLP leader, John Hume, are trying hard to draw the Republicans into non- violent politics, again enhancing Mr Adams's standing. New doors are opening, new opportunities beckoning.

Mr Adams and the Sinn Fein executive are not, however, the whole Republican family. Sinn Fein and the IRA are sustained by tens of thousands of supporters and sympathisers in what is a profoundly militaristic movement.

The platform party talks less and less about the IRA these days, but the audience welcomed and applauded references to the organisation. Most in the hall clearly believe the IRA is in the process of bombing its way to the conference table.

The leadership seems ready to contemplate a new strategy in which Republican violence stops. The IRA army council indicated last autumn that if the agreement reached between John Hume and Gerry Adams were accepted by the British government it would close down its campaign. The terms of the Hume-Adams agreement remain unknown, but it is hard to imagine Mr Hume signing his name to something which envisaged a British withdrawal in the short or medium term. Looking round the hall at the weekend it was hard to see how the people who were cheering the IRA would endorse the abandonment of its campaign for anything less than a public and binding commitment from Britain of its intention to pull out.

The suspicion therefore arises that the gap between the platform party and the grassroots goes beyond the merely sartorial. There has been much debate within the movement about the Downing Street Declaration but no substantial Republican voice has been raised in favour of it. The point at issue seems to be whether to reject it out of hand or to play a more subtle presentational game.

Sinn Fein's current position is that it cannot and will not respond to something that has not been properly clarified by the British government. This position has won a fair amount of support in non-Republican circles so that Martin McGuinness could claim yesterday: 'The British government know by now that they've lost the clarification debate.' He and the other Sinn Fein leaders will not answer what they say are hypothetical questions on what they would do if the government did clarify, and if that clarification were not to the Republicans' liking.

It seems obvious enough that the principle of Unionist consent needed for Irish unity, as spelt out in the Declaration, is entirely at odds with traditional Republican theory. The question then arises whether Sinn Fein will remain a straight 'Brits out' organisation, or whether some form of accommodation of other aspirations would be possible. When journalists attempt to explore this issue, the Republican position becomes elusive. The language has changed: they no longer speak of victory, but of peace, and they use terms such as self-determination, process and framework which can seem to obscure rather than clarify their own position.

The tactic is to try to reduce the Downing Street Declaration from landmark pronouncement to just one step in a long process. The immediate aim is to re-open communications with the British government, to clarify and if possible to negotiate. In the meantime there may well be no definitive response to the Declaration at all, as the Republicans try to shift the onus to clarify away from themselves and on to the British government. This approach will probably retain credibility for another month or two, but the Declaration was produced in mid-December and there is a certain natural limit after which it will become clear whether IRA violence is to continue.

The recent gains made by Republicans have been based on the hope or belief that they are heading towards a cessation of violence, but the tone of the Ard Fheis appears to indicate that the grassroots are not ready to relinquish the gun. In fact, had Hume-Adams been accepted and a cessation declared, it is a fair bet that large sections of the movement would now be in an angry mood seeking a new and more militant leadership.

If Gerry Adams and the Republican leadership really are intent on moving away from violence, the message of the weekend was that such a course may be more difficult and more dangerous than many had hoped; and will require much more than simply an improved dress sense.