Sinn Fein's fatal dilemma

Bill Clinton may want a ceasefire but the IRA needs British assurances, writes David McKittrick
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The republican movement is, as the Americans say, between a rock and a hard place, poised in some anguish between peace and war; and it is the Americans who are helping to keep that pressure mounting all the time.

The noises from Washington over the weekend, pressing for a new ceasefire, are a telling reminder that if bombing continues the republicans can expect only isolation - no more visas for Gerry Adams, no more chats in the White House, no more access to the corridors of power.

The republicans are probably more worried about the loss of transatlantic influence than they are afraid of the 10 June negotiations starting without them. The Clinton administration has significantly enhanced the standing and prestige of Sinn Fein; the loss of it would be sorely felt.

The republicans also stand on the verge of losing large swathes of Irish America, that powerful element which, quite independently of Bill Clinton, has much valuable political clout and finance to offer. Even the most pro-republican Irish-Americans are now absolutely adamant that without a ceasefire nothing can be done for Sinn Fein.

The isolation incurred by a refusal to cease fire would be domestic as well as international. Neither British nor Irish ministers will meet Sinn Fein until there is a new cessation, and almost everyone in Ireland will support the two governments' insistence that without a ceasefire Sinn Fein will not be allowed into the 10 June talks.

There is another point of pressure on the republicans to give peace another chance, and it comes from their own people, those 10 or 11 per cent of Northern Ireland voters who regularly support Sinn Fein. The IRA may bluster that it is prepared for another 25 years of violence, but the people of the Falls Road and Ardoyne are plainly horrified at such a prospect.

Gerry Adams, in the years he spent pushing towards the 1994 ceasefire, in effect put his movement into negotiation mode: the concept of victory was quietly discarded from the republican lexicon and replaced by that of peace.

His argument that the British could not be defeated militarily has permeated throughout the republican psyche, and helps to explain why so many republicans were dismayed when the IRA attacked Docklands in February. No one in the IRA has publicly mapped out a route to victory; there is a general feeling that going back to violence would alienate the Americans and all the other elements who stuck their necks out in the cause of bringing Sinn Fein into politics, and that in the end it would not work.

In fact, from a republican point of view, returning to violence could be the most dangerous course of all. No one doubts that the IRA is still a formidable killing machine, but in the long term it needs a purpose and a realisable goal to sustain it. Fighting on against a backdrop of growing lack of belief and apathy among its supporters would invite eventual defeat for the IRA.

To the republican mindset, therefore, the most likely means of progress lies in a revived peace process. Although the Docklands bomb was a shattering blow to the previous process, the dust cleared to reveal a near-universal belief, among republicans and non-violent nationalists alike, that the only way ahead lies in returning to a ceasefire followed by all-inclusive peace talks. For nationalists, a new paradigm has been firmly established.

The reader may well wonder why, if this is so, the republicans are not therefore hastening in the direction of a new ceasefire. Such a development, in advance of the June talks, is not out of the question, but at the moment it has to be said that the odds seem stacked against it. This is principally because the republicans suspect the British have a completely different paradigm in mind.

Sinn Fein will only press for a ceasefire if it is convinced the talks will represent real peace negotiations and not simply be a decommissioning conference. Republicans look at the Unionist leaders David Trimble and Ian Paisley and conclude that they will do real political business only under intense pressure. They think such pressure can only come from the Irish Prime Minister, John Bruton, and from John Major. They think that Mr Bruton places far too much importance on Unionist interests, and cannot be relied upon to further their agenda. And they have the deepest suspicions about Mr Major's intentions.

There is, of course, nothing new in this, since it is axiomatic to republicans that all British governments are perfidious. Although both London and Dublin have given numerous assurances that the talks will be for real and will not simply consist of republicans being harangued to hand over weaponry, republican suspicions remain.

If another ceasefire is engineered and the talks then turn out to be a charade, the credibility of the Adams leadership would be gone. To take a chance and go for it, he needs some cast-iron assurance that they will not get bogged down on the decommissioning issue. And this raises the question of what British intentions toward Northern Ireland really are - and no one in Ireland, Unionist or nationalist, is ever certain of that.

The talks have been arranged in such a way that they could indeed be the wide-ranging negotiations Sinn Fein wants. But they might instead turn out to be based on the preference of some British policy-makers for an approach of containment.

Some in government are prepared for a deep-rooted negotiation that might lead to a historic reworking of the political arrangements that brought Northern Ireland into being in 1920-21. But others view the idea of a political deal to which everyone, including republicans, could subscribe as a mirage.

This is the mindset of containment. It held sway on the security side for many years, based on the philosophy that the most which could be done was to keep the lid on until the IRA eventually got tired and gave up. This approach was visible at many points during the peace process, which did not fit the traditional London view that progress would come through locating an element of middle ground, however small, and incrementally building upon it.

Although this depends on the unlikely idea of Mr Trimble and John Hume of the SDLP striking a deal together, it still has many adherents in government. Many on the British side were, and are, temperamentally more comfortable with this approach, which is aimed not at drawing militant republicans into politics but at freezing them out and eventually defeating them. Republican sceptics point to London's emphasis on the decommissioning issue in support of the argument that the British see the talks as an attempt to clobber Sinn Fein rather than strike a deal with them.

For the Government, the issue is a delicate one. Ministers clearly wish to maintain the pressure for decommissioning. Yet if republicans are convinced this will be the centrepiece of the talks, then there will be no ceasefire. No ceasefire will mean no republicans at the conference table, which means that talks on decommissioning would be largely academic.

Bill Clinton, John Hume and Dublin are hopeful that a new offer of entry into politics will at some stage bring about another ceasefire. The republicans, not yet convinced that John Major wants to bring them in from the cold, are torn between talks that could be a trap and more violence which could bring eventual ruination.