Sinn Fein must speak more plainly than this if it wants a share in power

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Given the complexities of Northern Irish politics, it is probably unrealistic to expect a straight answer to a straight question where Sinn Fein and Gerry Adams are concerned. We can only infer that the statement Mr Adams gave yesterday, in all its gnomic opacity, was intended by way of an answer to the questions widely asked in the wake of the multi-million pound raid on the Northern Bank and the murder of Robert McCartney: is Sinn Fein still committed to the peace process and, if it is, when is it going to sever all links with the IRA?

Given the complexities of Northern Irish politics, it is probably unrealistic to expect a straight answer to a straight question where Sinn Fein and Gerry Adams are concerned. We can only infer that the statement Mr Adams gave yesterday, in all its gnomic opacity, was intended by way of an answer to the questions widely asked in the wake of the multi-million pound raid on the Northern Bank and the murder of Robert McCartney: is Sinn Fein still committed to the peace process and, if it is, when is it going to sever all links with the IRA?

The answer Mr Adams gave to the first question, at least, seemed unequivocal. He appealed to the IRA to seize what he called "a defining moment" to "rebuild the peace process". His words were cushioned with the sort of lavish praise that so often accompanies a concession. He lauded IRA members for their "determination, selflessness and courage". He also stressed - doubtless for those suspicious of the IRA's good faith on, for instance, decommissioning - that the IRA had honoured every undertaking made by its leadership. But his purpose was clear: to say something that would revive hope for the peace process.

His specific reference to the IRA leadership, however, was telling. Since the unsavoury events of December and January - the bank raid and the killing - there has been speculation that a section, or more, of the IRA membership might be out of control. And this is where the ambiguity begins. Rather than accepting that Sinn Fein should sever ties with the IRA - if such a move were practically possible - Mr Adams has turned that demand on its head. He is appealing instead to the IRA's rank and file to join him. In effect, he seems to envisage the bulk of the IRA being subsumed in what was formerly known as its political wing, embracing purely political means of advancing their cause.

As Mr Adams said: "In the past, I have defended the right of the IRA to engage in armed struggle ... now there is an alternative." His rationale was that he wanted to stop the British and Irish governments from using the IRA as an excuse for disengaging from the peace process. What he did not do, however, was issue any explicit appeal to the IRA to disband or lay down all its arms.

There is no need to look far to find good reasons why Gerry Adams might have chosen yesterday to make such a statement - and why he made sure to trail it so well in advance. The first relates to the general election. Sinn Fein anticipates an increase in its vote, and possibly a gain in seats. While polling suggests that the recent events and their aftermath have not lost it votes, they are unlikely to have increased Sinn Fein's appeal among floating voters. The party would doubtless like to show a solid increase as evidence of political strength if talks on power-sharing are to recommence.

The second relates to the cold shoulder recently turned towards Sinn Fein abroad from some of its most long-standing supporters. The way in which the Bush administration ostracised Sinn Fein during the St Patrick's Day festivities - and embraced the campaigning McCartney sisters - signalled official US frustration with recent developments in Northern Ireland. The stance of the Irish government, which was first to accuse the IRA of complicity in the Northern Bank raid, has disappointed Sinn Fein, as Mr Adams noted yesterday, too. Sinn Fein suddenly finds itself short of influential friends.

The bigger question is whether Mr Adams's appeal will have more lasting significance. At best, he has thrown down the gauntlet to the IRA: the onus is now on its leaders to honour their commitment to decommissioning and keep any erring members in order. At worst, however, by failing to call for its dissolution, Mr Adams has merely given the IRA a new opportunity for prevarication. His words may have to become more transparent before those less well-versed in the lore and language of Sinn Fein can judge the weight of the message he wanted to convey.

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