Itchy trigger-fingers in Ulster: As the IRA dithers, David McKittrick warns that loyalist violence may scupper peace

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The Independent Online
THE WEEKEND loyalist attack in Dublin which left one man dead and almost wiped out a pub-full of republicans is an example of the current deadly paradox of violence. As efforts are concentrated on ending the IRA campaign, it is the extreme Protestant groups that have become the greatest takers of life. Loyalist terrorists have taken 18 of the 33 lives lost north and south this year, some in focused attacks on republicans, most in indiscriminate attempts to kill as many Catholics as possible.

Straight sectarian bigotry lies behind many of the killings, but there is another reason: the belief that the IRA is in the process of bombing itself to the conference table, and the fear that the British government will make concessions to nationalists.

In reality, the republicans are still a long way from any Government-sponsored negotiations, for they seem nowhere near ready to declare the cessation of violence that would unlock the door into politics. Last week's explanation by the British government of the Downing Street Declaration brings Sinn Fein and the IRA to a defining moment. But there is no sign that the republicans are prepared to change their stance.

The Downing Street Declaration had put them on the spot, but the pressure eased appreciably when they successfully sidetracked attention into the clarification debate - which they won. It is now their turn to respond.

It took the British government six months to heave itself out of the hole it had dug for itself, but it did so with skill and intelligence, and non-republican nationalist Ireland applauded the move. The Government's responses to Sinn Fein's 20 questions clearly did not amount to renegotiation of the declaration, but they made explicit some points which will be welcomed by republicans.

They stated, for instance, that no section had a veto on progress, recognised the validity of Sinn Fein's electoral mandate, said that the declaration did not have to be accepted in its entirety, and specified that constitutional change could be placed on the table in future talks.

Furthermore, the responses were phrased in a measured, non-confrontational tone, without name-calling or belligerent language. This is important: it is not that republicans are faint-hearts who blanch in the face of robust rhetoric, but they are proud people who desire respect, and they pay much attention to tone.

But even though the Government played its cards so well, an IRA cessation of violence is not close at hand. The Downing Street Declaration and the subsequent clarification contain matters which are likely to prove unacceptable to the republican movement. The most unpalatable is the issue of consent. The Government position is that Northern Ireland should remain part of the United Kingdom so long as a majority of its people wish to. The traditional republican position has been that no section of the population of Ireland should have a veto on Irish unity.

Not only has the British government clarified its position on this, but that stance has been explicitly endorsed and supported by the Irish government.

Some previous Dublin administrations may have fudged on Unionist consent, but Albert Reynolds has made his position crystal clear: and Mr Reynolds is leader of Fianna Fail, the south's biggest and most nationalist political party.

The republicans will not like this new near-consensus on consent, but they have only themselves to blame. The continuing violence, which has reached down to Dublin again, has created in the South a tremendous aversion to the North. An IRA strategy designed to disgust the British has disgusted the southern Irish instead.

The republicans are left with few options. Rejecting the declaration and returning to a full-scale IRA campaign would mean their abandonment by those who hoped they were going political - Messrs Reynolds, Hume, Daly and most of Irish-America. Efforts to ease them into the political processes would cease. At the same time, republican leaders have not prepared their grassroots for a cessation of violence and entry into politics; nor have they demonstrated any readiness to move away from the old bedrock position of British withdrawal.

Until Christmas Mr Adams and the other leaders displayed impressive day-to-day tactical skills, but since then they have left an impression of drift and indecision. The sterile clarification argument may have had its uses, but it helped to create a vacuum in which killings by both loyalists and republicans have continued.

Now again the word is that a definitive republican position will not emerge until perhaps the end of June. Even then the most likely outcome will be indistinct: perhaps a call for yet more clarification, an effort to shift the ground on consent, a hope that the British government will make some helpful tactical errors. Perhaps some limited ceasefires to attempt to lever concessions from Britain; perhaps a bomb in London to drive home the point that republicans never rely on argument alone to promote their cause.

The IRA can do a great deal of damage, but its acts of violence now carry political penalties by disillusioning those who tried to bring the republicans out of the cold.

The continuing loyalist campaign, meanwhile, helps to poison the atmosphere against peace. And while loyalists contend that the IRA has achieved some success in bombing itself closer to the conference table, the fact is that from now on the bomb will take the IRA further away from the political processes, and towards an isolation colder than anything it has ever had to weather.

With loyalist and republican trigger-fingers still at the ready, it will require both leadership and luck to prevent the peace process degenerating into a messy, lethal quagmire.

(Photograph omitted)