Welcome signs of change in Northern Ireland

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The Independent Online

The last few months have been uncomfortable for the IRA and its political representatives in Sinn Fein. First there was the breakdown of disarmament negotiations. Then there was the accusation that both were responsible for a £26m bank robbery. But perhaps most damaging of all has been the murder - allegedly by members of the IRA - of Robert McCartney in a Belfast pub.

Yesterday, hundreds of protesters marched through a nationalist area of Belfast in support of Mr McCartney's family and their demands that his killers be brought to justice. This unprecedented groundswell of opposition has stunned the leadership. Three IRA members have been expelled as a result of the murder, and one presented himself to the police after Gerry Adams told those responsible to come forward. Sinn Fein even sent its Assembly member Alex Maskey on the march.

This demonstrates just how much Northern Ireland has changed. The willingness of nationalist communities to accept violence and intimidation by paramilitaries appears to be slipping. Graffiti such as "PIRA scum", seen in the Short Strand in the wake of the murder, would never have appeared a few years ago.

Sinn Fein may be in difficulties, but the party is unlikely to suffer in the forthcoming Westminster elections. With the moderate SDLP virtually a spent force, Sinn Fein remains the only real show in town for nationalists. But what really concerns the party is the potential of these allegations to cost it support in the Republic, where it is trying to enlarge its vote, in part at Fianna Fail's expense. The Irish government is now alive to the Sinn Fein threat, and much less likely to temper its criticism of the IRA for the sake of the peace process.

Recent events in Northern Ireland are forcing people to face up to some things that it has long been easier to ignore: the links between the Sinn Fein leadership and the IRA, the endemic criminality across much of the north, the fact that paramilitaries seem to be above the law. These are unsettling times, but if it leads to true reform within the republican movement, this may turn out to be a healthy process for Northern Ireland.