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Last Updated: Wednesday, 1 February 2006, 18:54 GMT
IMC report fails to accentuate the positive
Analysis by Kevin Connolly
BBC Ireland correspondent

The British and Irish governments may one day come to regret the moment of inspiration in which they created the Independent Monitoring Commission to monitor levels of paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland.

Mural in west Belfast
IMC said it had heard not all IRA weapons had been handed in

You can certainly see the seductive logic of the idea.

Establishing an authoritative watchdog staffed by veterans in government administration, policing and intelligence work seemed like the ideal way to prevent Northern Ireland's political parties from ceaseless squabbling over which paramilitary group had carried out what robbery.

The strategic hope, of course, was that over time the commission's reports would build into a picture of a new Northern Ireland in which the balance of activity within Irish republicanism would shift decisively from the paramilitarism of the IRA to the political activism of Sinn Fein.

There is equal scrutiny, it should be said, of loyalist paramilitary activity but most of the IMC's readers flick through the pages dealing with the UDA and the UVF and home in on the section dealing with the IRA.

That is not a case of media bias, incidentally, merely a reflection of the fact that republicanism has a strong political dimension - so strong that it has immediate and legitimate aspirations to involvement in government, as long as a large unionist party can be found that's prepared to share power with it.

End of armed campaign

This latest report from the IMC - the eighth - was held to be of particular importance because it was the first time the panel had a chance to consider the conduct of the IRA since that organisation's declaration last summer that it was winding up its armed campaign and devoting itself to exclusively political means.

The Independent Monitoring Commission report
The report was the eighth from the Independent Monitoring Commission

The British and Irish government reaction was out in the public domain before most of us had a chance to skim through more than a few paragraphs of the report, and it demonstrated the flair of the Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain for accentuating the positive.

While it didn't "paint a picture of perfection" he said, it did show that the IRA was moving in the right direction.

In short it was a report that provided a credible basis for next week's talks at which work will resume on the great project of creating power-sharing institutions which include both Sinn Fein and the DUP.

Turbulence ahead

And it's true of course, that there is much in the report which supports that positive analysis - not least the assertion of the commissioners that it remains the long-term strategic objective of the republican leadership to "eschew terrorism", as it rather quaintly phrases it.

The IMC reaches for a tired, but apt analogy to describe the process of re-focusing the republican movement. It is, say the commissioners, like turning an oil tanker - bound to create turbulence in the wash.

To extend that analogy though, the political waters around the IRA have clearly been rather more turbulent than the government would have liked.

The report says IRA members are still involved in organised crime like money laundering, and that the organisation itself is still gathering intelligence - hardly the activity of a conventional political party.

Arms claims

Most damagingly of all, the IMC says it's received reports that not all IRA weapons were handed over in September when the process of putting republican weapons beyond use was meant to be completed.

The agency responsible for overseeing the decommissioning process was quick to publish a brief report in which it stood by the positive assessment it made last September, and the IRA was quick to deny the suggestion too, but it's a damaging assertion to put in the public domain however vaguely.

The government had in mind a very specific role for this IMC report - it was to create a positive mood in which all party talks could begin next week, and in that it will have failed.

Small steps

Many nationalists believe that Ian Paisley doesn't have the slightest intention of sharing power with Sinn Fein and would have been desperately combing this report for anything that might justify procrastinating - as it is, he doesn't have to look very hard for something to justify his reservations.

It's true that, in the longer term, this report will probably be seen as marking another small step in the evolution of republicanism towards a new identity as an entirely political movement.

But it's always been clear that a complex and ambiguous period would have to be lived through before that goal was reached - it's just not clear how long that period might be.

In the meantime, journalists and politicians will continue to seize on the immediate problems thrown up by the IMC, rather than on the optimistic long-term landscape it sketches out.




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