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Last Updated: Thursday, 28 July 2005, 14:58 GMT 15:58 UK
Analysis: Sinn Fein's political journey
Martina Purdy
By Martina Purdy
BBC Northern Ireland political correspondent

Sinn Fein saw the Good Friday Agreement as a bridge to a united Ireland. But the party was expected to journey towards its goal without the IRA.

This was not only the logical consequence of Sinn Fein's decision to fight elections in the 1980s. It was an imperative of the agreement.

Sinn Fein argued it needed time to make politics work and show the IRA that it was no longer required. Benefits flowed from the agreement. IRA prisoners were released.

The Stormont government has been suspended since 2002

The door was opened to power-sharing at Stormont with unionists. Sinn Fein persuaded the IRA to decommission, and turned crisis to advantage.

Commentator David Adams, who was one of the agreement's loyalist party negotiators, said Sinn Fein had played the process well.


"Sinn Fein's tactics in the north are to create perpetual instability while being careful that someone else takes the blame for that and they present themselves as thwarted peace-makers."

Certainly Sinn Fein has made gains by being seen as the victim of unionist intransigence. The party has advanced on both sides of the border, winning five TDs in the Dail.

But its most marked growth has been in Northern Ireland where it has overtaken the SDLP in successive elections both at Westminster and Stormont.

The allegations around ongoing IRA activity and involvement in Colombia, Castlereagh and Stormontgate, when the IRA was accused of spying, undermined the process, but not Sinn Fein - not with many voters, anyway.

'Sinn Fein saw the Good Friday Agreement as a bridge to a united Ireland'.

The suspension of Stormont in 2002 indicated patience had run out with the IRA. The Prime Minister, Tony Blair, came to Belfast to make his "fork-in-the-road" speech, demanding republicans choose between violence and democracy.

He said the IRA could not continue half in and half out of the process. It was not only wrong, he said, but it would not work any more.

Republicans did not rush to react. Instead Sinn Fein and the IRA continued, one talking peace, the other apparently engaged in organising the Northern Bank robbery.

The fall-out from this was the catalyst for the latest initiative, coupled with the alleged republican cover-up in the murder of Belfast man Robert McCartney.

Gerry Adams' rating dropped in the Republic and with the process in Northern Ireland stalled, and with an eye to electoral advantage, Adams urged the IRA to embrace a purely political path.

For Sinn Fein, and the IRA, the prize is the same, but it has become clear that it is Sinn Fein that is best placed to achieve the objective, as the IRA in effect is now an impediment to power in the Republic - the real prize.


The Irish Justice Minister, Michael McDowell, has warned the party is going nowhere until the IRA gives up violence and ends criminality. He said the days of ambiguity over IRA intentions are over and the IRA has an appointment with history.

But the last steps may yet prove the hardest. This is not a sprint, but a marathon. According to former IRA prisoner Tommy McKearney, it is unrealistic to expect a break in the relationship between Sinn Fein and the IRA immediately.

"Relationships, knowledge, friendships don't disappear overnight so while officially there may be a change in policy it is unrealistic, it is not practical to think all those contacts are going to disappear overnight. It couldn't be done."

Other milestones remain in the future, not least support for policing. It is also expected to take some time for unionism to accept the IRA has broken with the past.

That could, however, advantage Sinn Fein who will play the thwarted peace-maker. In that event, Gerry Adams will argue that the excuse of the IRA is gone, but power-sharing has not come back.






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