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Last Updated: Saturday, 11 June, 2005, 14:42 GMT 15:42 UK
IRA 'could move within weeks'
By Brian Rowan
BBC Northern Ireland security editor

For two months now the IRA has been talking to itself - talking to itself in "disciplined and systematic briefings" right across its organisation.

Gunman
Gerry Adams called on the IRA to pursue democratic means
The leadership has been consulting the men and women in its ranks in a discussion about the future of the IRA, or more accurately, a future without the IRA.

It is a debate that has the potential to open up another negotiation and the possibility of another deal in the Northern Ireland peace process.

Almost exactly two months ago, Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams spoke directly to the IRA organisation.

He sketched out an alternative to "armed struggle" and posed this question:

"Can you take courageous initiatives which will achieve your aims by purely political and democratic activity?"

Gerry Adams and Ian Paisley
Republicans will see what is happening in the context of trying to do business with Ian Paisley's DUP and of a move towards endorsing policing

We should have the answer to that question soon, some suggest within weeks rather than months, and possibly before the end of June.

Republicans are saying two things: that the IRA won't be rushed but that, on the other hand, Mr Adams does not want his initiative "to run cold".

So decision time is approaching.

Beyond the debate, there will still be an IRA. It won't disband, but it will be a very different organisation.

Its words and actions will have to signal a final end to its "long war" and its arrival into that purely political and democratic arena that Mr Adams spoke of in April.

There are IRA members who see the organisation in its historical context and who will oppose the Adams initiative because the "Brits" are still here and Ireland is still partitioned.

But no-one is suggesting an IRA split.

Republicans will also see what is happening in the context of trying to do business with Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party and in the context of a move towards endorsing policing.

For some, this will be too much to stomach, and not every IRA member will support the Adams initiative. That is another of the inevitabilities of this process.

The IRA's decision on its future will not open up the immediate prospect of a deal with the DUP.

British army watchtower
The removal of watchtowers could follow any move by the IRA
But a decision to end all activities and to quickly complete the decommissioning process - possibly with additional witnesses - may well pave the way to autumn negotiations.

These would coincide with the next report of the Independent Monitoring Commission - a kind of ceasefire watchdog which advises the British and Irish governments on continuing paramilitary activity.

Its next report could be crucial in setting the mood for new talks.

And that is why the IRA statement - now expected within weeks - and the subsequent, speedy decommissioning will have to be credible and qualitatively better than anything that has been said and done before.

Convincing needed

After the Northern Bank robbery and the murder of Robert McCartney, the IRA has some convincing to do - particularly in the unionist community - and what it says and does in the coming weeks will put it back in the political shop window.

If it does enough to convince the governments that the political process can be re-built, the first response to the IRA initiative should come in the shape of demilitarisation - a reduction in troop numbers and the removal of the British army watchtowers on the hills of south Armagh.

This will be the build up to the next negotiations and the next effort to achieve a political deal and republican participation in policing.

And, very shortly, we could see the first steps in what is likely to be a lengthy process.




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