So near - yet now so far

David McKittrick on the years of effort blown away by frustration in the republican ranks
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The Independent Online
FOR many months Northern Ireland's political and paramilitary activists have experienced something close to dialogue overload, with a surfeit of conferences and seminars endlessly chewing over the way ahead for the peace process.

Suddenly, this grim weekend, the question is not how Northern Ireland's politics or policing or economy is to be managed in future, but whether anything can be salvaged from the wreckage. The prospect now seems to be not one of arduous constitution-building, but rather of an almost unthinkable regression to the dark ages of the troubles. Those who believed that the weight of local and international opinion would ensure the peace lasted have had their theories, and many of their hopes, dashed.

If there is one succinct explanation of why the violence broke out again, it may be that, for the republican movement, all those conferences have not represented the right sort of dialogue. There have been countless meetings and contacts with other nationalists and, increasingly, with Protestant and Unionist elements, but in republican eyes they were denied what really mattered to them: official, inclusive talks on the future, negotiating with the British government and other parties.

Seventeen months after the IRA cessation of August 1994, the IRA concluded that John Major had no immediate intention of seriously engaging with republicans at the conference table. Having reached that conclusion, the IRA then resumed its traditional business of inflicting destruction and of slicing open Londoners' faces with flying glass.

It is easy enough to lay out the strategic thinking of the IRA in this way, and to outline how the general psychology of the republican movement could have led to Friday night's bomb - growing frustration in the ranks, a suspicion that Major was intent on humiliating them rather than doing business with them, on bowing to Unionist pressure, on attempting to turn a ceasefire into a surrender.

What is frankly incomprehensible, however, is how republican leaders can imagine that bombing would change the British government's mind and propel it to the conference table. The logic of the bomb is not that John Major will now call all-party talks; it is that he will refuse to negotiate under such duress, and will have the support of Dublin, Washington and almost everyone else in refusing to do so.

To explain why the ceasefire ended it is necessary first to review how and why it started. Since the early 1970s, the IRA had waged a fierce campaign to drive the British out, but from the late 1980s republican leaders, headed by Gerry Adams, evolved a more thoughtful approach. Internal debate led them to conclude that the nature of the problem went beyond the old simplicities of believing that "Brits out" was the answer to all Ireland's problems. They came to recognise that Protestants and Unionists were not merely British puppets, but had concerns, and rights, of their own.

They pondered on a world changed by the European Union and the collapse of the Warsaw Pact. They looked at the Irish Republic and found a state which, in modernising itself, had abandoned physical-force republicanism in favour of post-nationalist Europeanism. They looked at Britain itself, and saw a country which looked less and less like a colonial power and more and more as though it would be frankly relieved to be rid of the burden of Northern Ireland.

They looked back over all the years of violence, and the tremendous energy and sacrifices they had made. They noted that, while the British government had secretly been in touch with them between 1990 and 1993, the contacts had taken the form of verbal fencing rather than negotiations.

And the thought grew that there might be another way. For years, Adams and his associates had challenged those who condemned republican violence to put forward an alternative way of working towards their ends. At first this seemed little more than rhetoric, but as time went on outsiders came to explore whether the republicans might be serious about contemplating a historic change of direction.

The first to take the rhetoric seriously was the SDLP leader, John Hume, who as long ago as 1988 led his party into formal talks with Adams and Sinn Fein. Many more contacts followed over the years, the idea growing that the republicans could be weaned from violence.The period from 1992 to 1994 was packed with both violence and political activity: there was a peace process, but on more than one occasion it seemed to have been wrecked by republican or loyalist atrocities. The fact that it survived so many acts of violenceleaves a glimmer of hope that it may yet survive even this dark time.

The Downing Street declaration of December 1993, made jointly by the British and Irish governments, amounted to a formal offer to republicans of entry into politics if IRA violence ceased. There were many ups and downs in the months that followed, but the August 1994 IRA ceasefire seemed the natural culmination of the peace process.

It came about through a complex of factors, but a number of key calculations were set out in an IRA document circulated among its members in the summer of 1994. One was the bald statement: "Republicans at this time and on their own do not have the strength to achieve the end goal. The struggle needs to be strengthened; most obviously from other nationalist constituencies led by SDLP, Dublin government and the emerging Irish-American lobby."

Adams had long argued that a military victory was not possible, either for the IRA or the British. The proposition he now advanced was that the leverage lost by abandoning terrorism could be made up by new political partnerships.

The August 1994 cessation was followed by a welter of meetings between Sinn Fein and others on both sides of the Atlantic. Hume remained a strong advocate of early all-party talks, while republicans were treated well by wealthy Irish-Americans and the Clinton administration.

But other things did not go as they expected. Albert Reynolds, in whom they had placed much store, lost his job as Taoiseach within months of the ceasefire; his successor, John Bruton, has proved much less supportive. The biggest problem came in the spring of 1995, when the British government formulated the pre-condition that some IRA weapons had to be de-commissioned in advance of all-party talks. Since this was not a practical possibility for the IRA, the peace process ground to a halt.

As the months passed, there was much debate as to why John Major was sticking so firmly to the de-commissioning demand. Some argued he strongly believed in it as a point of principle; others viewed it as a deliberate delaying tactic designed to cut the republicans down to size and, as they say in Ireland, put manners on them.

Whether the delay was a by-product of the stance, or was the real purpose of it, is still open to question. In the Commons last month, however, Major replaced the de-commissioning demand with his proposal for an election as the next stage. It seemed to offer a path to the conference table, yet it clearly meant more delay.

Major's election announcement caused a wave of anger not only among republicans but throughout nationalist Ireland, where he was rightly or wrongly seen as trying to bounce the Irish government into something without consultation.Something seems to have snapped within the republican movement.

Non-republicans might well say that the 1994 cessation of violence deserved no reward, since people should not have been killed in the first place. From a republican viewpoint, however, the ceasefire was a unilateral, magnanimous, statesmanlike gesture which put the onus on Britain to respond, principally by convening all-party peace talks. This brings us round again to the central mystery: how could the IRA believe Friday's bomb could bring talks nearer?

The short answer is that it cannot believe that proposition. Its leaders are well aware the logic of the bomb is to put off such talks, perhaps for months, perhaps for years, perhaps for ever. The likeliest explanation is therefore that the leadership's cool analytical logic has been displaced, for the moment at least, by a more emotional, more primitive wave of frustration and disillusion from the ranks.

Those who stuck their necks out for Sinn Fein (Hume, Dublin and Clinton) will now back away to assess what has happened within the republican movement. The republicans are about to lose a great many friends. In political terms the Docklands bomb was an act of something close to nihilism: the question is whether the IRA believes the peace process is over, or whether that process can make yet another comeback and keep hope alive.