Quit now we're ahead? No way. . .

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WE ARE being told that the IRA is under heavy pressure to deliver peace. Some even hold that it is about to split under this terrible strain. Don't believe a word of it] The morale of Sinn Fein-IRA - one organisation, not two - is far higher now than it was at the beginning of last year. And the main reason for this is the Downing Street declaration of 15 December 1993.

The Irish Times has a Northern reporter who has the entree to the appropriate circles. Her name is Suzanne Breen, and she was among the guests at Sinn Fein's Christmas party, right after the publication of the Declaration, and after the IRA's immediate and derisory response, which took the form of announcing its customary three-day Christmas truce. Gerry Adams in person presided over the festivities of his followers and friends.

Were the assembled Sinn Feiners cast down at the IRA's rebuff to the declaration which their President had done so much to shape? They were not. The general mood was one of unalloyed euphoria. They were delighted with the declaration - which they felt was a coup on their own part - but they were also entirely supportive of the IRA's 'no hurry, let's see' response. Implicitly, but unmistakenly, they support the continuation of the violence.

But why should Sinn Fein- IRA be so pleased with the Downing Street declaration? The reason is that it contains one sentence included at its behest, in an attempt to appease them, as they well know. And this sentence, with other matter related to it, constitutes the only really new element in the declaration. The sentence runs:

'The British government agrees that it is for the people of the island of Ireland alone, by agreement between the two parts respectively, to exercise their right of self-determination on the basis of consent, freely and concurrently given, North and South, to bring about a united Ireland, if that is their wish.'

No previous British government has ever agreed to any proposition of that order. Obviously, it does not yet represent everything Sinn Fein-IRA is looking for. It includes the principle of consent - meaning Unionist consent - and it makes no change in the legal status quo. For those reasons (and because they were consulted in advance, and because they have nothing to hope for from the Opposition at Westminster) the response of the Official Unionists to the declaration has been calm and measured. Middle-class Unionists tend to be legalistic in their approach to documents. But Sinn Fein-IRA looks at documents in terms of symbols and signals: especially those which suggest who is winning the battle of wills. That sentence, issued officially on behalf of the British government, conveys to them the message that the IRA is winning. Hence the euphoria.

The general pattern of Sinn Fein-IRA's responses over this year is predictable. There will not be the 'permanent end to the use of, or support for, paramilitary violence' which the two governments have been looking for and still pretend may be round the corner. Sinn Fein-IRA will seek further concessions, in the form of 'clarifications'. Indeed, the clarification game is already in full swing. John Hume has called for clarifications to be provided by the British and Irish governments for both Sinn Fein and the Rev Ian Paisley's party (a recipe for diplomatic bedlam). Gerry Adams has backed Mr Hume's demands, adding for good measure that Mr Major's failure to date to provide the necessary clarifications is 'childish' and 'grossly irresponsible'. The IRA will measure its continuing dosage of violence in proportion to the responses to the demands for clarification.

There are likely to be tactical ceasefires, and when these break down the blame will be cast on the intransigence of the Unionists, the perfidy of the British government, and the treachery of the Irish one. Even at this stage, the most congenial of these themes is being addressed. Mr Hume this week charged that Mr Molyneaux 'does not want the IRA campaign to stop and is provoking them into continuing'. So if the IRA campaign does continue, it will be the Unionists, and not the IRA, who are responsible, in Mr Hume's eyes. In short, Sinn Fein-IRA and its friends have already begun an enjoyable game of cat-and-mouse with the two governments, and with the longing for peace of a gullible public in both islands.

It is not Sinn Fein-IRA that is under pressure. It is Sinn Fein-IRA that is applying - and occasionally relaxing - the pressure, in a highly sophisticated manner. Those who believe the group to be under pressure, because of the general longing for peace, are utterly mistaken. For terrorists, a general longing for peace does not constitute a threat. On the contrary, it is an asset; a major resource, that they exploit at will: 'You want peace, do you? Well, we control the supply of that commodity. How much will you pay us, politically, to let you have a bit of peace, for a while?'

The brutal fact is that the two governments, and Mr Hume, were conned by Sinn Fein into issuing a declaration that benefits nobody except Sinn Fein's masters, the IRA. The governments and Mr Hume were led to believe that the IRA was so war-weary that all it wanted was some formula with the magic word 'self- determination' in it, to save its face, and then it would give up the fight, for good. Mr Reynolds, it seems, was assured of this by some monks he met in the border area, and the diagnosis was subsequently confirmed by Mr Hume. Mr Major appears to have experienced similar revelations. It was all a put-up job. The alleged war- weariness was never more than a ploy. Those who fell for it cannot admit the fact, even to themselves, so the ploy is still working.

One should not despair. Sinn Fein-IRA may overplay its hand, and the two governments may recover their nerve, or acquire some. The only road that can lead to lasting peace is the hard road of fighting the IRA instead of appeasing it. And that will require internment, evenhandedly applied to both sets of paramilitary godfathers. That road may yet be tried. But the omens for it being tried at any time this year look far from good.

(Photograph omitted)