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Last Updated: Thursday, 16 September, 2004, 11:54 GMT 12:54 UK
Sinn Fein and the IRA
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The Irish poet William Butler Yeats once asked how you separate the Dancer from the Dance - you can't. The two are utterly intertwined.

The same, unionists say, is true of the IRA and Sinn Fein. A leader of Sinn Fein once memorably talked of taking power with an Armalite in one hand and a ballot box in the other.

But, as Northern Ireland's politicians get down to yet more talks aimed at re-starting real democratic politics, might Sinn Fein somehow be able to break from the IRA? Can you separate the dancer from the dance after all?

Liz MacKean reported.


You can see the sense of confidence that's in the business community, they have a sense we are about to rebuild the city, or that we're in the process of rebuilding the city.

When he was a member of the IRA, Gerry O'Hara was arrested on suspicion of bombing Londonderry. Now as Sinn Fein's mayor, he is only interested in building it up.

Part of the legacy of the conflict is that the city was deliberately neglected, so the infrastructural issues, we run a local region airport but we run it at our own expense and it costs the rate payers in this city 1.3 million a year. The rail system is antiquated and was left to fall into a state of complete neglect. We are lobbying for a high speed rail link between the second city and Belfast.

Derry, as it is known to its Catholic population, has long reflected the problems of Northern Ireland. Its mayor now reflects the progress that's been made.

I think there was a view within republicanism that physical force was the only way to achieve the objectives of republicans. I think that we engaged in a peace process, and I think as our constituency sees that there is the possibility of making political progress, then the old ways of doing things I think become less and less valid.

The walls of Derry are as old as the Irish conflict itself. It's where the troubles began. And where the IRA drew much of its impetus and support. As the peace process enters a new phase, there's one vital question to be resolved. Is the IRA ready to announce an end to its campaign? At its height, the IRA tried repeatedly to bomb the commercial heart out of Derry. There were two attempts to kill the British Cabinet. In all, 1,700 lives were lost as the Provisional IRA fought for a united Ireland. Young republicans are growing up in a very different world. For them, politics is about staffing constituency offices and helping former prisoners. They all speak of a new confidence.

When I think back to what my community went through 20 and 30 years ago, it saddens me. To be honest, I would be selfish in thinking "thank God I wasn't there", because the differences are phenomenal.

Life has changed so much for people. Housing is better. People have money in their pockets. They have a better quality of life.

So, you are seeing now that politics is working?

Politics is working, yes.

I think there are still a lot of outstanding issues that have to be resolved. That depends on the will of politicians and the community leaders, to sit around the table and discuss those things. That's the only way the peace process will be brought forward.

An earlier generation of activists was shaped by Bloody Sunday; when paratroopers fired onto a civil rights march, killing 14 people. It helped swell the ranks of the IRA and gave them all the justification they needed to continue the armed struggle. Bloody Sunday galvanised the IRA's campaign. Even when it was at its most deadly, a young priest who had been at the march helped forge contacts between IRA leaders and the British Government. Dennis Bradley, who now serves on the police board, believes republicans have slowly come to terms with the political process.


The IRA didn't think it would have to decommission, didn't want to decommission. But there was a logic in which they had to do that, and it happened. The final big issue for republicans is standing down of the IRA. That for now and for the foreseeable future the IRA go into a commemorative organisation. All that has happened because the new young people of the republican movement who are now leading Sinn Fein saw that that was inevitable and they have walked that road because they wanted to walk it. But they were also dragged there by the circumstances that they met.

John Hume, then leader of the nationalist SDLP, gambled by holding secret talks with Sinn Fein at a time when they were an outlawed organisation.


For the first time in history the people of Ireland as a whole, north and south, have spoken as to how they wished to live together by overwhelmingly voting for the Good Friday agreement. Therefore, no paramilitary organisation can now claim, as it always did in the past, that they were acting in the name of the Irish people.

As John Hume's party has learned to its cost, the quieter the IRA, the better Sinn Fein do at elections, both here and in the south. Final decommissioning of IRA weapons can only help Sinn Fein to greater success. The republicans' political strategy began to develop in the 1980s. Infamously, it was based on the policy of the Armalite and ballot box. Over the years, as the balance has shifted, Sinn Fein's leader has hinted at a future without the IRA. As far back as 1986, Gerry Adams wrote that: "armed struggle has been an agent of bringing about change." But he added that "non-armed forms of political struggle are at least as important." But at a republican rally in Belfast in August 1995, a reminder:

They haven't gone away, you know!

Then last month this:

I think political unionism uses the IRA and the issue of IRA arms as an excuse. Much easier to talk about that, much easier to put that up as a blockade. I think republicans need to be prepared to remove that as an excuse.

But not without getting something back. Indeed, Sinn Fein's critics have always accused them of using the IRA as a bargaining chip in negotiations. They haven't yet got everything they want, on a range of issues like policing, demilitarisation, people on the run. If those things get dealt with, then the IRA will be expected to act. Martin McGuinness has admitted being a leader of the IRA's Derry brigade in the 1970s. He's now Sinn Fein's chief negotiator and believes the IRA has played a key role in the peace process.


Over the course of the last ten years or so people in Ireland have had the political education of a lifetime. I think people came to the conclusion that many of the arguments that were made within the British system and within unionism about the IRA being the cause of the problems were effectively blown out of the water by the IRA calling a cessation in 1994. Some people are inclined to the argument that Sinn Fein couldn't have achieved the electoral successes that we have done without the IRA being there, as they say, in the background. I think that's an insult to the intelligence of where the electorate of the island of Ireland are coming from.

Even so, there have been fierce debates within the ranks. This former IRA prisoner believes the Sinn Fein leadership has betrayed republican principles.


I think Sinn Fein have reached the point in the process where they are effectively managing the defeat of the IRA, and they are managing it skilfully. They have settled for an internal solution, but they are using the IRA as a negotiating tool, a bargaining tool, to extract the maximum amount of concessions.


The conventional view that Mr Adams and the people around him led a war-like community towards the path of peace is simply wrong. It is far more meaningful to see the peace process as a process whereby Mr Adams and his associates brought the republican movement into alignment with where their own people, so to speak, already were.

But it's the other community in Northern Ireland that's going to take most convincing. Here on Derry's walls, the annual parade of the Apprentice Boys symbolises the unionist message of 'no surrender'. That is the message that has been resurrected by the party Sinn Fein must now deal with, the party of Ian Paisley. Dr Paisley is at Leeds castle for the talks, hell bent on renegotiating the Good Friday agreement. The party's younger leaders are seen as more pragmatic, but the disbandment of the IRA remains non-negotiable.


You can't have a peaceful and democratic future if somebody is going to hold on to their weaponry and continue paramilitary activity. Either they come into the political process and be democrats along with the rest of us, or they stay out and have to be dealt with as terrorists.

No-one will be dreaming tonight of a breakthrough. The parties aren't on speaking terms. Their leaders have never met. Yet a deal would see them running Northern Ireland together. Politically Sinn Fein have much to gain, but they know they can't take the IRA with them.

This transcript was produced from the teletext subtitles that are generated live for Newsnight. It has been checked against the programme as broadcast, however Newsnight can accept no responsibility for any factual inaccuracies. We will be happy to correct serious errors.

Newsnight's Liz MacKean
reported on whether the link between political and violent Republicanism can ever convincingly be broken.


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