The IRA must climb down and give ground on arms

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The IRA may be moderating the tone of its new year messages, but it still has a nerve in arguing that all the problems of the peace process, and by implication all the woes of Ireland, can be laid at the door of the British government. Once again, according to its traditional new year statement, the Brits are to blame; once again there is no hint of remorse about all those early graves filled with almost 2,000 IRA victims.

The IRA may be moderating the tone of its new year messages, but it still has a nerve in arguing that all the problems of the peace process, and by implication all the woes of Ireland, can be laid at the door of the British government. Once again, according to its traditional new year statement, the Brits are to blame; once again there is no hint of remorse about all those early graves filled with almost 2,000 IRA victims.

As usual, the IRA statement was terse and austere; as usual, it had that tone of lofty statesmanship associated with an organisation which still, technically at least, regards itself as the legitimate army of Ireland.

The good news is that no one now takes any of this too seriously. As the IRA reiterates, it retains the aspiration of achieving a united and independent Ireland; the difference is that nearly all republicans now accept that this is not going to come about as a result of IRA violence.

That haughty tone once had the most lethal implications, in that it was used to claim legitimacy for killing and bombing. IRA statements used to say, pitching their message in terms of a fact rather than a threat, in sorrow rather than in anger, that violence would go on as long as there was a British presence in Northern Ireland. In those days they regarded violence as a pure thing, while politics was a sordid mess to be avoided at all costs. That message has now gone, but the mock-statesmanlike tone remains.

The refreshing thing is that the old posture is now so obviously out of date as to be embarrassing to many republicans. Modern republicanism is still a balance between the IRA and its political representatives in Sinn Fein, but the latter has abandoned almost all of the old self-righteous stance. Now in the ascendancy, it is clearly in the business of wheeling and dealing, of making trade-offs and settling for compromises. If anything it has become almost too skilled in the art of the possible: many of those who do direct business with the republicans come away amazed at their negotiating skills.

This can be a problem, in that Sinn Fein has successfully brought almost all republicans with it on its long and tortuous journey, whereas the Ulster Unionists, though more numerous, are hopelessly fragmented and therefore weakened.

The unity of purpose of both republicanism and Unionism is about to be tested once again this month, when the peace process hits its next set of rapids. Successfully negotiating these will require give and take on all sides. Most of all, it will require the IRA to get down from that rhetorical high horse and pragmatically provide the movement on arms which will be essential to the survival of the peace process.

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