What are the options for peace?

David McKittrick looks at what it will take for the IRA to support fres h talks
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In 1993, after a series of atrocities during the South African peace process, a Johannesburg journalist wrote: "Perversely, the attacks have had a salutary effect on the diseased negotiation process. The more outrageous the behaviour from the periphery, the more the centre coheres."

In the wake of the Docklands bombing the British and Irish governments, the parties of the House of Commons and almost everyone in Northern Ireland are all in the business of displaying the democratic centre's determination to stand up to violence. In the immediate aftermath the two governments have been directing the public focus on attempts to narrow the political disagreements that divide them. John Major is now suggesting an election, not with a take-it-or-leave-it air but as one of a number of options. Dublin no longer rejects an election as anathema, rather indicating it could, with suitable safeguards, be acceptable. The general lack of recriminations is seen as a positive sign.

The weeks to come will bring a prime ministerial summit, intensive Anglo- Irish discussions, and rounds of talks with the Northern Ireland parties. There will be discussions on the election, on Dublin's Dayton-style talks proposal, on a potentially bigger role for the US, on John Hume's notion of a referendum to pass judgement on violence and dialogue.

But although these talks will be important both in themselves and in reasserting the primacy of politics in the face of terrorism, they will not be enough to put the peace process back on track. The essential proposition at the heart of that process was that the republican movement could be persuaded away from violence and into politics.

That proposition is currently in doubt. If it proves to be false, then no amount of Dayton-style conferences or elections will work, the peace process as we know it will be over, and Britain and Ireland will have no option but to return with heavy hearts to the long, long task of standing up to terrorism.

So while the political activity continues in the foreground, so does the vital task in the background of finding out exactly what is going on within the republican movement. This is why both London and Dublin, while imposing a ban on ministerial meetings with Sinn Fein, have instructed officials to keep in touch with republicans.

At the moment there is an anguished wait to see whether the Docklands bomb was a one-off attack or the prelude to a sustained IRA campaign. The hope is that it was an isolated incident. If no other attack takes place, then the possibilities of another ceasefire can begin to be explored.

The central question here revolves around the figure of Gerry Adams, who appears not to have been informed by the IRA of the breakdown of the ceasefire or about the Docklands bomb. The decision not to tell him has led some to conclude that Adams is a busted flush, a man whose unarmed strategy has been tried and rejected by the IRA and who is not capable of delivering another ceasefire.

This may, however, be a misreading. Even the most militant IRA leader can see that the republican movement possesses in Adams a figure of international stature, of formidable ability, experience and personal presence - "The bastard has charisma," a nationalist opponent once conceded. He is in himself such an asset that discarding him would amount to an act close to nihilism: indeed the general membership of the republican movement holds him in such high regard that it would simply refuse to allow him to be jettisoned.

The IRA is calculating enough to have worked it out as follows. Informing Adams about the bomb in advance would have implicated him in the act. Not telling him meant keeping his hands clean, and ensuring, in the terminology of the South African journalist, that he is seen as part of the centre rather than the violent periphery. It could therefore have been a thoughtful and considered move rather than an insulting gesture of repudiation.

Friday's bombing was inevitably a severe blow to his authority and credibility, but he has the political skills to re-build his reputation. In fact, if these deductions are correct, the IRA will actively assist him, so that he will continue to be a major player in the peace process.

Looking ahead to the possibility of another ceasefire, the IRA has thus ensured that Adams has preserved his political credentials. And next time round, when he warns of a crisis in the peace process, the British government could no longer dismiss him as crying wolf. The implication in all this is therefore that the IRA, even as they gave the order that brought death and destruction to Docklands, was thinking ahead to future negotiations - and, perhaps, future ceasefires.

It would be wrong to suggest that any of this analysis is based on the whispered confidences of senior IRA leaders. Such men do not spell out their thought processes to outsiders. Much of this is therefore deduction and supposition.

Yet the hard fact is that it is all we have, for all the resources of the RUC, the Army and MI5 did not see the ceasefire breakdown coming. It was this poor prediction record which some months ago led an Irish wit to cite, as an example of an oxymoron - a contradiction in terms - the phrase "British intelligence". He got a big laugh.

This faulty intelligence assessment was compounded by the mistaken political judgement that the obvious frustration in the republican community would not translate into a resumption of violence. The logic here is that the Government is not at this moment in a position to work out exactly how to handle the republican movement, since it does not know what is happening within it.

The authorities are now doing their democratic duty in reaffirming their resistance to terrorism, but the lessons of Friday's atrocity may include an unpalatable acceptance that the Government's analysis, and therefore its policy, was at fault. You have to know your enemy, both to anticipate whether he is about to attack and to judge whether it is possible to make peace with him.