Leading Article: Sinn Fein will have to get real

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IT IS time for the IRA to hand in its arms. We have said it before and we say it again. It has, of course, always been true and the IRA has never been likely to do it. But now it is more important than ever, and we are approaching the point when the IRA fantasy of the "armed struggle" has to collide with reality. Something has to give.

The Good Friday agreement made a republican case for disarmament: it offers the IRA its best chance of achieving its aim of getting British "troops out", as part of a process of multilateral disarmament by which it, at the same time, gives up its weapons. There is, of course, no moral equivalence between IRA terrorism and the British armed services, but there is a practical equation. If the IRA retains its weapons, the loyalist paramilitaries will keep theirs, and the British Army will stay. Violence will continue, and the republican cause will be further marginalised.

However, the IRA cannot be forced to hand over its Armalites, mortars and Semtex, and shows no sign of even thinking about doing so. Its statement yesterday was categoric: "There will be no decommissioning by the IRA." In effect, it said that there would be no disarmament until the "end of British rule in Ireland", which might as well be "not ever". As John Hume, leader of the constitutional nationalists, has said, there is a "no surrender" mentality on both sides in Ulster. Mr Hume told this newspaper recently that he could not imagine the IRA ever handing its guns to the British government. He does think it is possible, though, that the issue could be handled by the international body set up to oversee decommissioning. But it is hard to be optimistic, and it is even harder to predict any movement before the election of the Northern Ireland assembly.

So, what then? The question of decommissioning was the greyest of the grey areas in the Good Friday agreement, but was a necessary gap which allowed the rest of the deal to be stuck together. At the last minute, at lunch time on Good Friday, the Unionists raised the issue of whether Sinn Fein leaders would be able to serve as ministers in the assembly while the IRA was fully armed. The Prime Minister jotted down a letter to David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist leader, promising to "support changes" to the agreement if its provisions for excluding people linked to terrorism turned out to be "ineffective", and the deal was struck.

The letter has been condemned colourfully by Ian Paisley's crew as being worth no more than Neville Chamberlain's piece of paper. Predictable propaganda, of course, but there is the beginning of a credibility problem here. What if Ireland, north and south, votes yes in the referendum in three weeks' time? What if Sinn Fein is elected to the assembly and Gerry Adams seeks to join the power-sharing executive? What then?

Well, if the IRA will not give up any weapons, Sinn Fein is going to have some explaining to do. So far, most of the pressure in this process has been on Mr Trimble and the Unionists, and it is infinitely to Mr Trimble's credit that he has stayed with it and reversed the traditional abstentionist stance of Unionism. Now the spotlight is going to swing back to the republicans.

No one believes Sinn Fein's protestation that it and the IRA are separate organisations. No one expects Gerry Adams to dissociate himself from the IRA. He has engaged in some extraordinary double-talk to embrace the ballot box without condemning the bullet, but the moment of truth is near. He ransacked the thesaurus to avoid "condemning" the IRA murders which had him suspended from the peace talks earlier this year. He "regretted" them, as he regretted all killings, and, more significantly, called them "wrong". But if he wants to serve as a minister in the assembly, he will have to affirm his commitment to non-violence, and promise to "use any influence [he] may have to achieve the decommissioning of all paramilitary arms within two years".

That is what it says in the Good Friday agreement which Sinn Fein has not exactly signed up to, but gone along with. Mr Blair has, rightly, appeased republican sentiment, as part of a strategy of kicking away, one by one, the moral crutches which support armed republicanism. But now he has to lean on Mr Adams to repudiate the use or threat of force for political ends in more explicit terms. Sinn Fein must take the first step towards achieving the "demilitarisation" it claims to seek.