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EDITIONS
Tuesday, 23 October, 2001, 15:59 GMT 16:59 UK
Analysis: The day the IRA changed
Brian Rowan

When it came, it came in the form of a suggestion - but look who was suggesting it.

You had to search deep into Gerry Adams' six-page speech delivered in west Belfast on Monday for the signal that the IRA was about to complete the journey from "armed struggle" to "'arms beyond use".


Adams and McGuinness have moved the IRA from armed struggle, to Armalite and ballot box, through a "Semtex war" to ceasefire and now to something even bigger - to arms beyond use.

Brian Rowan
There it was in paragraph 34: "Martin McGuinness and I have also held discussions with the IRA and we have put to the IRA leadership the view that if it could make a ground-breaking move on the arms issue that this could save the peace process from collapse and transform the situation."

The suggestion was coming from two men who have dominated modern day republicanism, men in positions to know the mind of the IRA leadership and who are used to getting what they ask for.

You could sense that this was one of those key moments in the peace process, a turning point.

Adams and McGuinness had once again re-modelled the republican clay. They have moved the IRA from armed struggle, to Armalite and ballot box, through a "Semtex war" to ceasefire and now to something even bigger - to arms beyond use.

Key figures present

I looked at the top table, at those who were flanking Adams.

Veteran IRA leader Joe Cahill
Joe Cahill: Veteran leaders at speech
To his left, the veteran republican Joe Cahill, MPs Michelle Gildernew and Pat Doherty and, to his right, party chairman Mitchel McLaughlin, Assembly members Alex Maskey and Dara O'Hagan and long-time councillor Fra McCann.

Adams' special aide, Richard McAuley, was crouched in front of the table. Throughout weeks of intensive negotiations he has been at the side of his party leader. He, more than most, knew the choreographed sequence of statements and actions that would flow from the Adams speech.

In the audience, I spotted the IRA jail leader at the time of the 1981 hunger strike, Brendan 'Bik' MacFarlane.

Jim Gibney, who was key to the election campaign which saw Bobby Sands elected MP for Fermanagh-South Tyrone, was also there. So too was Seanna Walsh who had been one of Sands' closest friends and one of the first IRA prisoners to benefit from the early release terms of the Good Friday Agreement.

No cheering

There was applause for Adams but no-one was cheering - an acceptance that what was being suggested had to happen. Republicans - and in particular the IRA - were being stretched beyond where they thought the peace process would take them.

For those republicans, decommissioning is a dirty word. They prefer to call it arms beyond use. But, however you dress it up, Adams was signalling a move that would see the IRA begin to get rid off some of its weaponry.

This was step five in a long process that has been played out since the Good Friday Agreement of April 1998:

  • In November 1999, the IRA leadership appointed a representative to "enter discussions" with the decommissioning body.
  • That dialogue began the following month.
  • In May 2000, as part "a confidence building measure", the IRA agreed that international Inspectors could examine a number of arms dumps.
  • In August this year, the IRA agreed a scheme with the decommissioning body to put arms completely and verifiably beyond use.
  • Step five, the beginning of that process, now confirmed by the international decommissioning body, which reported it had witnessed a "significant" event when arms, ammunition and explosives were put beyond use.

    A leadership decision

    This initiative by republicans is so significant that there had been a security assessment that the decision would have to be sanctioned at a so-called IRA Army Convention.

    Sinn Fein's Alex Maskey speaks with party president Gerry Adams
    Republican leadership: Drove decision
    These meetings, which are representative of the entire IRA organisation, happen rarely and are only called to rule on matters of major importance.

    But, in the end, the IRA decided to do things differently.

    The decision, like many that have been taken in the course of the peace process, was driven by the leadership.

    It was the IRA's seven-member Army Council which ruled on this one. Its organisation was consulted but there was no convention vote.

    Putting the case to their own

    Republicans are selling what the IRA has done as a move to save the peace process.


    Republicans will say the IRA saved the peace process. For a while at least, crisis could be replaced by the stuff of once upon a time and happily ever after.

    Brian Rowan
    But there are those who believe that in the end the republican organisation was forced to bow to unionist pressure - pressure which meant that the new political institutions simply would not function as intended unless there was an arms move.

    What the IRA had to calculate was political and strategic advantage - timing its arms move for maximum gain, and it appears the organisation has calculated well.

    The British and Irish Governments and the American administration have applauded the IRA's decision and what pressure there was has gone.

    So what happens now?

    Whatever happens next, the IRA will have been seen to have moved to put some solid foundation beneath political institutions that were about to crumble.

    There may still be trouble ahead but for now at least, the IRA is out of the corner and the spotlight now switches to the unionist response, to demilitarisation and to loyalist guns and bombs which are being used almost on a daily basis.

    Recently, a political source attributed the following quote on decommissioning to a senior republican: "This is like a computer virus ... if you don't get rid of the virus the computer will never work."

    There is no certainty that the virus has gone but there is now the chance that things might function that little bit better.

    General de Chastelain and his Commission now have something significant to show for four years of effort. David Trimble, who held out for decommissioning, has something he can sing about.

    And republicans? They will say the IRA saved the peace process. For a while at least, crisis could be replaced by the stuff of once upon a time and happily ever after.

  • Find out more about the latest moves in the Northern Ireland peace process

    Devolution crisis

    Analysis

    Background

    SPECIAL REPORT: IRA

    TALKING POINT

    AUDIO VIDEO
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