Leading Article: Ministering to IRA paranoia

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THE IRA is not suddenly going to forsake violence. That much has become clear from events since last December's Downing Street Declaration. Though most IRA supporters must see little prospect of bombing their way to a united Ireland, the majority remain unenthusiastic at the prospect of pursuing that goal peacefully. Schooled in the quasi-religious myths of the 1916 Easter Rising, their extreme nationalism is accustomed to seeing even apparently futile blood sacrifice as fruitful. And abandoning violence carries the threat for the IRA of political oblivion, military defeat and humiliation.

Sir Patrick Mayhew is well aware of this deep-seated IRA paranoia. In New York on Tuesday night he addressed that fear by declaring that the IRA would not be expected to 'surrender'. The comment was tucked into an otherwise unremarkable speech that reiterated the terms for admitting Sinn Fein into the political mainstream. But the wording demonstrated an encouraging resolution - rare for this government - that the peace process cannot be allowed to falter because of republican persecution mania.

Having said that, the Northern Ireland Secretary's strategy is risky and slightly distasteful. It is possible that analysts in both the British and Irish governments have been fooled into believing that Gerry Adams is either interested in, or capable of, leading his movement into accepting reality. IRA minds may in fact be beyond persuasion and Sir Patrick's gesture may be taken for weakness. But achieving peace in Northern Ireland will always be a murky business and Sir Patrick has recognised that he may have to dirty his hands in pursuing what may eventually prove to have been an illusion.

There are other areas in which he could provide reassurance, not to the IRA but to that section of the nationalist minority in Northern Ireland where violent republicanism is rooted. Their immediate fear - which the security forces should assuage - is that they would be exposed to indiscriminate loyalist violence if the IRA laid down its arms. But their real nightmare is that a Northern Ireland free of IRA killing would drift back into Unionist-dominated life as before.

The Downing Street Declaration does not address these concerns. It focuses on guaranteeing the Unionist veto and acknowledging the legitimacy of peaceful aspirations to a united Ireland. If Sir Patrick really wants to undermine the IRA, he must also set out the civil and political rights he can promise Roman Catholics in a peaceful Northern Ireland of the future.