Heady days for the IRA

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We have beaten the British Army. So Gerry Adams told a public meeting in Belfast last weekend. His claim derived a certain credibility from the place in which it was made. He was addressing an estimated 10,000 supporters outside Belfast City Hall. Sinn Fein had never been allowed to hold a meeting in the city centre before. Its presence there was an index of Sinn Fein's increasing acceptability to the authorities. And Sinn Fein means the IRA, a connection Mr Adams did not go out of his way, on this occasion, to discourage.

The concession about the meeting- place is a fruit of the latest stage of what used to be called the 'peace process'. That term became tarnished last month when Sinn Fein, on the IRA's instructions, dumped the Downing Street Declaration at its conference in Letterkenny. Nobody can now expect 'the permanent cessation of violence' on the basis of the Declaration that we were led to expect at the start of this year.

So what happens now? We were told that if Sinn Fein and the IRA did not deliver on that permanent cessation, there would be 'a major security clampdown'. The IRA has not delivered, but the response has been: 'Well, if you won't give us a permanent cessation, won't you at least give us a ceasefire? Please.'

The IRA will probably accord a ceasefire sometime this year - and probably before the mid-term Congressional elections in the United States in November. But first it is going to see what can be squeezed out of the pre-ceasefire situation. The message is that the IRA is prepared to consider a ceasefire, but that others - meaning the two governments - must 'help to create the conditions for a ceasefire'. 'Create the conditions' is the formula, in IRA-speak, that takes the place of the pre-Letterkenny formula of 'seeking clarifications' to the Downing Street Declaration. The obsolete 'clarifications' and the fashionable 'conditions' are euphemisms for concessions.

When the ceasefire comes, as it will, the word will be: 'What will you give us for an extension of the ceasefire?' and when the ceasefire breaks down, as it will, the word will be: 'What will you give us for another ceasefire?'

'The quest for peace' - the phrase currently in vogue - is a more subdued version of the tarnished 'peace process' and even more congenial to the IRA, since the governments are settling for less. Ceasefires, and the hopes and expectations they arouse, will be central, from now on, to the psychological warfare that accompanies the IRA's armed struggle.

Mr Adams's friends have not beaten the British Army, nor are they beating them. But they are winning the psychological war. They have established an ascendancy over the minds of their adversaries - the governments in Dublin and London.

This is not yet as obvious in London as it is in Dublin; but it is more obvious in Belfast, in the Northern Ireland Office, than it is in Dublin. A yearning to propitiate the IRA is evident in two statements by Sir Hugh Annesley, Chief Constable of Belfast and now in overall charge of security in Northern Ireland.

Last month, with the IRA's armed struggle continuing unabated, Sir Hugh paid tribute to the sincerity of those in the IRA whom he believed to be working for peace. Last week he indicated that an IRA ceasefire would be followed by a scaling down of the British military presence in Northern Ireland.

That last promise was contradicted this week by Malcolm Rifkind, Secretary of State for Defence. But the general tenure of Sir Hugh's statements and policies, including the authorisation for Sinn Fein's rally outside Belfast City Hall, is believed to have the approval of Sir Patrick Mayhew, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. So the British government appears to be speaking with two voices over Northern Ireland. More good news for the IRA.

In the US, too, the outlook is bright for the IRA. President Clinton, through his National Security advisers, has been sending signals to Sinn Fein. Formally, the message is unexceptionable: the President is asking Sinn Fein and the IRA to accept the Downing Street Declaration and accord a permanent cessation of violence. Actually, what is being discussed is a ceasefire, and there are the makings of a deal there: the IRA to accord a ceasefire and maintain it through the second Tuesday in November, and the President to send his peace envoy during the ceasefire.

From the point of view of the Clinton Administration, this would make sense. The President has his mind fixed on the mid-term elections, in which many Democratic candidates are in dire trouble. A breakthrough for peace in Northern Ireland could be the answer to their prayers. A ceasefire, followed by a visit by a peace envoy, could easily be made to look like such a breakthrough. It would hold the 'Irish' vote in New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Los Angeles and would make a fine impression throughout the nation.

For the IRA, also, such a deal would be most attractive: a vision of a ceremony on the White House lawn would begin to heave in sight. In the meantime the peace envoy would be a reliable ally for Sinn Fein-IRA in pressing for whatever concessions can be squeezed out of hopes for extension of the ceasefire.

There is so much to be gained by both sides that it would be surprising if the deal is not concluded. The ceasefire will be an episode within an armed struggle that is being conducted by the IRA with increasing political and psychological sophistication. The IRA believes British withdrawal is around the corner, and is preparing for the Bosnia-style civil war between Catholics and Protestants that will follow. It has indicated that it will continue to 'defend the Catholic population' against the loyalist paramilitaries. In so doing, the IRA will be consolidating its power over the Catholic areas in preparation for the next - and, it believes, decisive - round with the British. The now discredited 'peace process' has been a political bonanza for Sinn Fein-IRA. The 'quest for peace' looks even more promising.

(Photograph omitted)