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Last Updated: Thursday, 7 April, 2005, 15:08 GMT 16:08 UK
Is the IRA's endgame approaching?
By Brian Rowan
BBC Northern Ireland security editor

Gerry Adams speaks and then the IRA consultation begins.

And after that speech by the Sinn Fein president - delivered on the Falls Road in the heart of his west Belfast constituency - the only question now is how close are we to the IRA's endgame?

In the fallout after the failed political negotiations of last December, followed by the Northern Bank robbery and the murder of Belfast man Robert McCartney, there were fears about the IRA's future intentions.

Guns
Opponents of Sinn Fein say they want action from the IRA
Some even expressed concerns about the ceasefire.

But there has been a consistent security assessment that, while the IRA still had the capacity for violence, that was not its intention.

Now, all of the talk is of a future without the IRA.

The fears of "war" have gone to be replaced by a sense that something is coming that could help build on what has long been considered an imperfect peace.

As predicted, 24 hours after the Adams speech, the IRA gave a first response in which it said it was giving "due consideration" to his appeal to republicans to consider the political alternative to armed struggle.

One source talked about this being a seminal moment in recent republican history

"Unilateral" IRA moves are now being suggested - words and actions which, in effect, see it leaving the stage, and doing so in a convincing way before the likely next political negotiations in the autumn.

So, this is about trying to create a situation where the IRA and its arms and activities are removed from the negotiating agenda in a way that is demonstrably proven before the next round of crucial political talks.

No-one on the republican side is taking for granted the outcome of the IRA debate.

'Unilateral' IRA moves

But if the above is to be achieved then the "new mode" and the "complete" decommissioning promised last December as part of a comprehensive agreement will have to be delivered up front and not as part of any new negotiation.

This is what is meant by "unilateral" IRA moves.

QUICK GUIDE

For the IRA, this would be a step into the unknown, because there is no guarantee that unionists - and in particular Ian Paisley's DUP - would respond positively.

So, what are the possible next steps? That decommissioning would be done but without the demanded DUP photographic proof.

That said, it would be done before any new talking and before any new attempts at deal making.

And if things go to plan, the politicians could be entering an autumn negotiation with the Independent Monitoring Commission - which reports on paramilitary activity - giving the IRA a clean bill of health.

All of the above seems to be the logic of what Mr Adams and the republican leadership are working towards - a republican future which is in the hands of Sinn Fein and not the IRA, a future in which Sinn Fein alone is the vehicle for achieving republican goals.

One source talked about this being "a seminal moment in recent republican history".

If the IRA takes the big decisions, the decisions that transform it from a fighting force into something purely political, then this could be that defining moment that has taken many years to arrive.

Gerry Adams

But the IRA will have a lot of convincing to do.

The bank robbery and the McCartney murder in January are still very much fresh in the memory, and there are those who are viewing these latest republican moves - coming in the jaws of an election - as opportunistic and as a stunt.

Others dismiss this, but the proof will be in the IRA pudding.

As the Downing Street spokesman said: "The key will be what the IRA does as a result (of the Adams speech), and it is on that, that any final judgement will be made."

This time, there can be no room for doubt
We now have the first IRA response, but it will be the second one on which those key judgements will be made.

If all of this is to follow the logic that is being suggested, then we should hear something sooner rather than later.

This cannot be played out over any lengthy period of time.

"There is no point in the IRA deciding to take initiatives if the initiatives can't win over the naysayers, the begrudgers and the governments," one source told me.

And another spoke of a scenario developing in which the IRA begins to leave the stage.

But some will say that we have heard all of this before - and that is why, this time, the saying and doing of whatever the IRA decides will have to be all the more convincing.

This time, there can be no room for doubt.

A talks insider told the BBC News website: "There is no point going near another negotiation unless it's clear the IRA campaign is over, that all activities have ended and that the arms issue is being dealt with.

"The precise detail of how all of that fits together is something that can only be worked on once we know what the IRA response is."

And it is now clear, that if unionists are to return to a negotiation and to the possibility of a deal with republicans, then they will have to be absolutely convinced that, this time, there is no way that the IRA can return to the stage.




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