Sinn Fein Could Win the Peace; Tony Blair Has Thrown Down the Gauntlet: The IRA Must Disarm. Nothing Else Will Convince Ministers in Belfast and London That Peace, and Democracy, Stand a Chance. (Features)

Article excerpt

For the IRA, this is either an end, or a new beginning. More than a year after 11 September, it had hoped to carry on as if nothing had happened. But the plates have shifted: either the IRA makes a jump into hyper-terrorism, or it stays on the ground and folds its tents.

For the British government, this is a new beginning -- even if Tony Blair presented it as an ending, announcing the change, in his speech on 17 October, as a "fork in the road [which] has finally come". That speech took the first step to consigning the IRA into Britain's own axis of evil.

Blair is now saying that the IRA is targeting the democratic process itself. "We can't carry on," he said, "with the IRA half in, half out of this process. Not just because it isn't right anymore. It won't work any more." It is a curious formulation: when was it ever "right"? In what way did it "work"? The only explanation that makes sense is that the process worked before September 2001, and now it doesn't. The IRA, after much huffing and puffing, made a symbolic decommissioning gesture early in the New Year: it appeared to think that would be its contribution to the new anti-terrorist age, and that the wind would then blow over. It hasn't.

The British government has established conditions for a parliamentary and social dispensation that are as close to proof against republican complaint as it is possible to get and still retain the facade of democracy. Indeed, the settlement that came in with the Belfast Agreement is hardly democratic at all, as the rest of the UK understands it. No Northern Ireland government can be anything other than inclusive of all the main parties -- and nothing can be finally decided if one of the two "main communities" (Protestant or Catholic) disapproves. It is government, or stasis, by communitarian armlock. In effect, the Belfast Agreement laid down that there was something more important than a democratic assembly: the achievement of relative peace.

Thus republicans have to resort either to history, or loyalist violence and sectarianism, to discover a grudge. Even Gerald Lally, a leader of the Irish American Unity Conference, could only fall back on the violent protests organised by Protestants against Catholic schoolchildren at the Holy Cross School for an example of British imperialism. Yet the ugliness of the incidents could hardly disguise the fact that the police were struggling, successfully, to ensure safe passage to school; while unionist and loyalist politicians strove, successfully, to talk the inflamed protesters down. Britain has indeed done the republican movement a great disservice: it has removed itself as a credible enemy.

The IRA has been among the most successful and long-lasting of the "old" terrorist movements. Its first actions were in the 1880s, with the "dynamitards" and the Phoenix Park murders of Lord Frederick Cavendish, chief secretary for Ireland, and his undersecretary. Now, the IRA must decide if it leaves behind the knife, bomb and bullet and embraces the political process -- or moves into the super-terrorist arena, both morally as well as in its use of weapons. For super-terrorism in the al-Qaeda manner is directed not against a specific state for a specific goal of national liberation: it is directed against a political system, a culture, a religion, a way of life. Blair, constrained though he is by the presence in the Northern Ireland cabinet of two former Sinn Fein leaders (Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness), was putting the IRA in the same box as al-Qaeda: rebels without any cause that can possibly be conceded.

September 11 cut a swathe through support for the IRA in the US. Those who had vaguely thought that the Irish were, like the Americans themselves, reborn free through the defeat of British imperialism have had to -- if they thought at all -- think again. Or at least bow to the new political correctness. …