But the action of the British and Irish governments, in issuing last week's joint peace declaration, has wrongfooted the republicans and confronted them with the most difficult of dilemmas. They must choose between peace and war.
As the President of Sinn Fein, Gerry Adams, made clear in Belfast yesterday, they are not ready to announce a decision. They want time to think; they want to talk to their people; they want clarification of the declaration; they want dialogue with the two governments.
In other words, they are playing for time. They are uncomfortable and nervous, for this is a defining moment for the republican movement; and whatever path they choose is fraught with difficulties and dangers, political and physical.
The declaration surprised them, for they had thought it unlikely that Albert Reynolds could talk John Major into making an announcement which so directly addressed republican concerns. A month ago a senior republican said privately: 'He (Major) just hasn't the balls for it, hasn't the bottle for it. He's the wrong man in place at the wrong time.'
Having underestimated Mr Major, they have been presented with a document which drew a near-rapturous reception from almost all shades of opinion, in the House of Commons and in the Republic of Ireland.
The declaration, and the welcome it received, has increased the widespread hope that peace might be close. It has tremendously increased the pressure on the republicans. At his press conference in the Falls Road yesterday, Gerry Adams faced a row of eight television cameras, arranged a little like a firing squad, and a roomful of British, Irish and foreign journalists who wanted to hear him say the war was over.
He has invested a great deal in nudging the republican movement into a negotiating posture, but it is clear enough that the joint declaration is not viewed as the basis for a cessation of the IRA campaign.
Mr Adams will now spend weeks, and perhaps months, establishing whether the two governments will consider making concessions that could make it acceptable. But at some stage soon it will become evident whether the IRA intends to stop or go on.
Continuing the campaign would present difficulties. Unless the British and Irish governments make major tactical errors in the next few weeks, the blame for the continuing violence will, outside the republican community, be placed squarely on the shoulders of the IRA.
The IRA and Sinn Fein are no strangers to isolation, but their strategists must wonder about the prospects for success of a terrorist campaign which is generating only more and more hostility in the republic. Sympathy for its cause in the south has dwindled to near-zero: the populace there wants Irish unity some day, but not yet and not by violence.
In the declaration, the British and Irish governments subscribed to the principle that the Irish people had self-determination, but agreed that this consent was inextricably intertwined, in a double helix structure, with the principle of Unionist consent to Irish unity.
The only way for the IRA to force the British Government to resile from that central concept, as expressed in a solemn agreement with the Irish government, is for the IRA to inflict a military defeat on Britain. IRA strategists must see how unlikely it is for two democratic governments to capitulate to terrorism.
But the other side of the coin is that the declaration offers little enough to the IRA. The concept of self-determination is addressed, but the consent qualification in practice means that a united Ireland is not on the horizon. The Unionist right to say no, as guaranteed by Britain, is arguably buttressed by the fact that it has been formally endorsed by Dublin.
The IRA would ideally like to end its campaign with a British withdrawal, or declaration of intent to withdraw, neither of which is on offer. Failing that, it would want to end it in circumstances that set the scene for the eventual ending of the Union. The declaration, on a republican reading, does not do so.
The campaign would therefore be closing on an uncertain note. The declaration contains much 'green' rhetoric, but the IRA does not trust the British. The section on self-determination has such a ring of finality to it that Sinn Fein, when it did reach the table, could be told that the key issue had already been settled.
Furthermore, the nationalist experience has been that the day-to-day reality of British administration in Northern Ireland is often more unionist than the occasional grand declarations emanating from Downing Street.
There is a fair likelihood, republicans would realise, that after an IRA cessation the British would not be inclined to make concessions in their direction.
There remains the key question of the Unionists. An ending of IRA violence would be welcomed by almost everyone, but republicans - and others - have seen no real signs that peace would bring any new partnership approach from a Unionism which is for the most part unreconstructed and not in the business of offering a new accommodation even to moderate nationalists.
Few outsiders will have much sympathy, at this defining moment, for a movement that has inflicted so much death and destruction over the past quarter of a century. But it is a moment of real agony for the republican leadership; it is a genuine knife- edge decision; and a great many lives will depend on it.
Matthew Symonds' column returns on 5 January
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