SOME WEEKS ago I ran into a senior republican in a Belfast hotel. I hadn't seen him for quite a few years but I knew from past experience that in private conversation he was less inclined than many of his colleagues to obfuscate or dissemble.
In public appearances in the past he was a master of what was then Provospeak, a tortured dialogue of whining complaint and self- righteousness. But privately he was capable of dropping the green screen and talking realpolitik. And so, after some polite reminiscing, I asked my straight-talking acquaintance what would happen about the decommissioning of IRA weapons. Would the Provos start handing up some guns and Semtex? "Not an ounce," he quickly replied. "We won't give up anything. It is not, not going to happen."
Why, I wondered, were they so adamant? "That would be surrender and we have not been defeated. It is just not going to happen," he said. What about the rumours that the IRA might blow up some old weapons and explosives somewhere in the South? "Let me repeat myself," he said. "It is not going to happen. I was here in 1969 when our neighbourhoods were attacked and the republicans were running around with nothing to defend the people. People were laughing at us, mocking the IRA because it couldn't defend Catholic neighbourhoods. That will not happen again, and neither are we about to declare a surrender." It is the latter point that has become an obsession with the IRA. There are many in its ranks who regard Gerry Adams and the politicos with deep suspicion. They have stayed in the mainstream movement to preserve republican unity. The ghost of past republican splits, with all their bloodshed, has provided a strong imperative to hold together. But their loyalty is still conditional. Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness know that better than anybody else. I don't doubt that in practical, everyday terms the armed struggle has been abandoned. But for appearances' sake the gun will be around for a while yet. That is the reality. I tend to believe the warnings of a dangerous IRA split in the event of immediate decommissioning. There is still a sizeable body in the ranks of the IRA that would happily return to war if given the nod of approval from on high. So far Adams and McGuinness have managed to outmanoeuvre the hawks. The political negotiations were prolonged enough to deny the hard men a single issue around which to rally support. Immediate decommissioning would provide that issue. There is a gnawing suspicion on the part of the militarists that the Good Friday deal was an implicit recognition of partition. Agreeing to the principle of Unionist consent denies the logic that provided the justification for the IRA's 30-year war. But on this political point it was possible for Adams to fudge, as Michael Collins did before him. He could not use Collins's exact words but, as in 1922, the deal essentially promises republicans the "freedom to achieve freedom". It does not declare a timetable for British withdrawal and reunification with the South. By persuading the militarists to settle for less, Adams achieved the most significant political victory of any republican leader in more than a generation. It required courage and stealth, and there were desertions along the way. But he and McGuinness brought the majority of the movement with them. We know the moral answer. If you truly believe in peace, give up your guns and bombs. If you accept the primacy of politics, then keep within the Mitchell principles and hand over the weapons. That is the moral imperative. But let us be honest here. This process has never been about a strict moral interpretation of the situation. If it had been, then prisoners guilty of the most horrible crimes would not be walking free before their time. …