McGuinness, as a man with a reputation for militarism and an interest in political activity, has, in effect, often functioned as a liaison between the military and political elements of the republican movement. As such, delegates were keenly interested to hear his message.
He was correct in signalling that there is no split: you can always tell when there is a split, because when there is one they start shooting each other. The rule of thumb is that if there are no bodies at the roadside, there is no split.
What there is, however, is a chasm within the movement, a yawning gap between the IRA leader - who the other day threatened, "If that's what the British want, we will give them another 25 years of war" - and the bulk of the republican community, who want no such thing.
That community, the 80,000 or so who in Northern Ireland regularly vote for Sinn Fein, supported, or at least tolerated, violence for a quarter of a century. Most of them thought in military terms and for most of the Troubles regarded the IRA, not Sinn Fein, as their cutting edge which forced the world to pay attention to them.
The IRA ceasefire of August 1994 was, in republican terms, an initiative of breathtaking scope, a unilateral move away from all that, a move towards a whole new mindset. They could have fought on, but the sense of relief that coursed through the republican community showed widespread approval for the cessation. Most in that community were clearly ready to bid farewell to the use of arms.
The mood of the previous Ard-Fheis, which was held in the wake of the ceasefire, was recalled at the weekend by Jim Gibney, one of Sinn Fein's more reflective leaders. He said: "Last year there was a great sense of expectation, of optimism, of movement. I felt we had crossed the Rubicon of armed conflict. It seemed to me that, at last, dialogue as the instrument of political change, was anchored centre-stage."
At the weekend, there was precious little buoyancy and optimism to be seen in a movement faced only with hard choices. Before the Docklands bomb, Gibney and other Sinn Fein leaders were proud of the new contacts and relationships they developed during the 17 months of cessation. They felt that Sinn Fein was, however slowly, getting somewhere.
The bomb propelled the movement in the opposite direction, reasserting its capacity for brute force but undermining its political gains. It damaged Adams and the Sinn Fein leadership and demonstrated to the world that the movement encompasses two starkly conflicting viewpoints. There may be unity on the point that they should not split, but there isn't any on what to do next, and the republicans have little time to resolve their differences by leisurely debate. The peace process is now moving along on a tight schedule, with an election to be held on 30 May and talks to start on 10 June.
Sinn Fein now has a series of tactical decisions to make. It is unlikely to boycott the election itself, unless John Hume's SDLP decides to do so. But both Sinn Fein and the SDLP are unlikely to take part in the new forum, which will inevitably have a Unionist majority. In the meantime, as David Trimble's hard-line weekend speech showed, all parties are moving into election mode with the familiar hardening of positions and consequent rise in political and other tensions. The IRA, to judge from its violence and a series of belligerent statements, is in no mood to declare another ceasefire. This means that unless the unexpected happens, Sinn Fein looks like fighting the election while no IRA ceasefire is in effect.
One of David Trimble's original arguments for wanting an election was that it would provide everyone with a new mandate. But even if no IRA bombs go off during the election campaign, the fact that no IRA ceasefire exists means that Sinn Fein's mandate would be a highly ambiguous one that would do little to convince those suspicious of the party and its democratic credentials.
The Ard-Fheis heard no open criticism of the IRA, but judging from what republicans say in private, many in Sinn Fein wish the Docklands' bomb had never happened and regard it as a serious setback. Republicans blame John Major and John Bruton rather than the IRA Army Council for the collapse of the cessation, but there is much uncertainty about the IRA's next move. At the moment, after four bombing incidents in London, it has pushed the pause button and there have been no attacks in Northern Ireland.
This could mean an internal IRA debate is under way; it could be a sign that the terrorists wanted to deliver a short, sharp, violent shock; it could be a recognition that the bombs have not been popular with the wider republican community. But there could be more attacks at any moment, while there could also be violence from the Irish National Liberation Army or from the Loyalists, who also represent potential threats to peace.
At this point, the way ahead is surrounded by thorny thickets of questions of mistrust, decommissioning of weapons, what should be first on the agenda for talks and so on. Unionists want cast-iron guarantees on decommissioning; the IRA has said there won't be any this side of a negotiated settlement.
If the IRA is not intent on a return to war, then what it wants is talks with as few preconditions as possible. They do not want Sinn Fein to arrive at the conference table trussed up like a turkey, with major decisions having gone against them even before negotiations begin. There will thus be no new IRA ceasefire unless the IRA is convinced that the negotiations will be for real. But the fact that there is no ceasefire means the peace process has become not so much an uphill path as a minefield.
This Ard-Fheis is by no means a rededication to another 25 years of violence. There were no ringing endorsements of armed struggle, and the prevailing opinion seemed to be that there was little alternative but to attempt to revive the peace process. That in itself is of critical importance. The Army Council may turn out to be intent on more war, or a combination of events may trigger off a new spiral of violence. There are many dangers around, but alongside them it is a source of hope that large numbers of republicans would regard a reversion to full-scale violence as futile and ultimately doomed.
`The Nervous Peace', the third collection of David McKittrick's journalism from the `Independent', covering the period from the August 1994 IRA cessation to its breakdown in February of this year, was published last week by Blackstaff Press.Reuse content