How Blair's tough new line hardened republican anger

Suspension of decommissioning comes after Prime Minister said progress on peace could not continue with IRA active

The IRA's move in suspending contacts with the decommissioning body is a sign of deteriorating relations between republicans and the Government in the wake of two recent developments.

The first was the Government's suspension of devolution in Northern Ireland, which took place on 14 October, resulting in the closure of the Belfast Assembly and the mothballing of the power-sharing Executive.

Most participants in the peace process saw no obvious alternative option, and the Government clearly acted with the greatest reluctance. None the less Sinn Fein has been highly critical of the move, characterising it as London bowing to Unionist pressure.

The suspension followed an announcement by the Ulster Unionist leader, David Trimble, that he was about to pull his ministers out of government. The immediate cause of this was the disclosure that republicans were involved in political espionage at Stormont Castle. That was viewed by many as evidence that the IRA was still highly active.

Critics of the Unionists meanwhile complained that the spying revelations were being used by them as an excuse to leave government before the Assembly elections scheduled for next May. This was said to be because Protestant and Unionist opinion has for several years become more and more disillusioned with Stormont power-sharing, bringing together in government as it did republicans and Unionists.

The Ulster Unionist Party position, which for years has centred on demands for the decommissioning of IRA arms, has now shifted to an insistence that the IRA should disband.

The second major development to inflame republican opinion came a few days after suspension, on 17 October, when Tony Blair visited Belfast to deliver a speech. Although he did not use the word "disbandment", the Prime Minister made clear that it was time for the IRA to go out of business, saying that no more progress could be made with the IRA "half in, half out, of this process".

He argued that continuing IRA activities sustained hardline Unionists and thwarted more moderate Unionists, in effect guaranteeing that Unionists would not go back into government with Sinn Fein while the IRA remained active.

It is clear enough from opinion poll evidence that Protestants in general will need some persuading before they will approve of their political representatives teaming up with Sinn Fein again. Many thus regarded Mr Blair's central point as being no more than a political fact of life.

But down in the republican grass roots there is reportedly much anger, since their cause is perceived as having taken a number of damaging knocks.

For one thing they have lost a devolution settlement that they greatly treasured. For another, republicans have been saddled with the major share of the blame for its collapse, since the prevailing view is that the Assembly was brought down not by Unionist intransigence but by republican espionage.

Then Mr Blair's speech placed the onus on the IRA, representing to republicans a hugely significant change in his attitude. Many republicans readily acknowledge that he has contributed much to the peace process, but this was something different. In their eyes he shifted from being prepared to do business with the republican movement to demanding that part of it should be wound up. To the ultra-suspicious republican mind this can easily be viewed as Mr Blair seeking to achieve through negotiation what the British Army always failed to do through military means.

To many on the republican side these three elements – the loss of the Assembly, Sinn Fein coming out worst in the blame game and Tony Blair's tough new line – together amount to setbacks to their position. Republicans want the Assembly back again, but the price being demanded by both the Unionists and London is IRA disbandment.

There is a remote possibility that Mr Blair might be moved from this position, but Unionists will continue to insist on disbandment, or something not far off. Republicans remain committed to the process, to which they have devoted years of effort, but all of this bad news for them has produced a venting of anger, as seen in yesterday's statement.

The IRA statement

This is the full text of the statement issued by the IRA through the republican newspaper 'An Phoblacht':

Recent events show that the leadership of Unionism have set their faces against political change at this time.

There is also a real threat to the peace process from the British establishment and its agencies as well as the loyalist murder gangs.

For our part, the IRA remains committed to the search for a just and lasting peace.

The complete cessation of military operations announced in July 1997 remains intact.

In the past the IRA leadership has acted unilaterally to save and enhance the peace process.

We have also outlined how, in our view, the full implementation by the two governments of their commitments could provide a political context with the potential to remove the causes of conflict.

Despite this, the British Government says that the responsibility for this present crisis and its resolution lies with us and there is an effort to impose unacceptable and untenable ultimatums on the IRA.

At the same time the British Government, by its own admission, has not kept its commitments.

The IRA, therefore, has suspended contact with the IICD (Independent International Commission on Decommissioning).

The onus is on the British Government and others to create confidence in this process. They can do this by honouring their obligations.

P O'Neill, Irish Republican Publicity Bureau, Dublin.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments