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EDITIONS
Sunday, 9 February, 2003, 10:43 GMT
Tough challenge for PMs
BBC NI political editor Mark Devenport

So what to make of Gerry Adams' latest downbeat comments on the chances of a move by the IRA which would help create the conditions for a restoration of devolution?

Mr Adams asked an audience of Sinn Fein activists in west Belfast whether the climate was right for a significant move by the IRA. Then, answering his own question, he said: "I hardly think so."

Could it be that republicans, having weighed up the costs and benefits of a spring deal, no longer think it is "game on"?

Or is this just the public face of a hardball stance in their private negotiations with the British and Irish Governments? If so, then they are playing a consistently tough game of poker.

Visiting south Armagh over the last few days, it was possible to let the mind wonder about how different things might look if there is a deal

The US envoy Richard Haass was in Ireland last week talking up the need for bold actions to secure a deal.

But he came away, according to one senior US congressman who spoke to the BBC, doubting whether the key players had the will to reach an agreement.

'Bases and installations'

Another source spoke of Mr Haass's frustration that republicans appeared to be more interested in "strategising" than making historic gestures.

It certainly looks as if Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern will have their work cut out when they arrive this week for another round of talks with the parties.

Visiting south Armagh over the last few days, it was possible to let the mind wonder about how different things might look if there is a deal.

Prime Minister Tony Blair
Tony Blair: Hillsborough Castle

Since the Good Friday Agreement, the security forces have demolished 37 bases and installations - three of them (two surveillance posts and a sangar) were in south Armagh.

However, Sinn Fein still point to the remaining posts and bases in the area (anything between 13 and 18 depending on how you count them) as evidence that demilitarisation hasn't gone far enough.

It's safe to assume that if - with Gerry Adams' latest comments notwithstanding - the IRA does make a bold gesture, then tearing down most of the remaining watchtowers will form part of the payback.

'Continuing threat'

Irish Justice Minister Michael McDowell has clearly been thinking about what might happen next in those circumstances.

A bill he is about to push through the Dail will allow for members of the Garda Siochana to go on temporary secondments north of the border.

Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams
Gerry Adams: Downbeat comments

It doesn't stretch the imagination too far to think of the possibility of seconded Gardai playing a role in community policing in a demilitarised Crossmaglen.

Unionists are understandably concerned that pulling down the border posts might compromise their safety, given the continuing threat from dissident republicans.

But the justice minister indicated to BBC Radio Ulster's Inside Politics programme that he believes the risk is worth taking and that he will give the Irish police all the backing it needs to take on any dissidents who try to bring down any future deal.

But will there be a deal? Republicans and government officials are still wrangling over the details.

Mr McDowell is against the creation of new all-Ireland policing and justice bodies - just one of the many items on Sinn Fein's shopping list.

If republicans decide, as Gerry Adams indicates, that the time is not right to reach agreement, they will risk alienating London, Dublin and Washington in the uncertain hope of a achieving a better deal in the autumn, by which time it's likely that the face of unionism could look rather different.

If you want to make a comment about this article send it to politicsni@bbc.co.uk

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

Devolution crisis

Analysis

Background

SPECIAL REPORT: IRA

TALKING POINT

AUDIO VIDEO
See also:

01 Feb 03 | N Ireland
22 Jan 03 | N Ireland
17 Jan 03 | N Ireland
10 Jan 03 | N Ireland
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