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Last Updated: Sunday, 10 April, 2005, 09:27 GMT 10:27 UK
Call to IRA dominates campaign start
Mark Devenport
By Mark Devenport
BBC Northern Ireland political editor

Back in December, Ian Paisley emerged from Hillsborough Castle and predicted that the IRA was considering decommissioning its weapons without providing the photographic evidence which the DUP had demanded as its bottom line.

Republican sources responded by laughing off the comments, noting that the process had reached an "absurd stage" when the DUP leader started warning the IRA not to disarm.

Phrases like Alice in Wonderland were bandied around to characterise the Paisley comments.

IRA mural on wall
The IRA is considering the call by Gerry Adams
Four months on, the notion of a unilateral move by the IRA does not seem quite so far fetched.

Indeed, this is exactly what Gerry Adams called for when he said in his "keynote" west Belfast speech that republicans should lead by example.

It is reasonable to assume that total IRA decommissioning without photographs is likely to form part of such a unilateral move away from armed struggle.

The DUP has warned republicans that its response to such a move would be to extend its "decontamination period" before contemplating sharing power.

But from the republican perspective, unilateral disarmament means that embarrassing photographs of IRA decommissioning need never feature in the history books.

In any case, after the allegations over the Northern Bank robbery and the controversy about the murder of Robert McCartney, Sinn Fein can hardly be expecting any swift or guaranteed rapprochement with the DUP.

Instead, they will hope to regain kudos with the British, Irish and US governments, then consider the prospects for a deal with the unionists at a later stage.

Certainly, the Adams initiative has achieved one of its initial aims, in as much as it has overshadowed the first week of the election campaign.

Gerry Adams scolds commentators who dismiss his initiative as an election "ploy".

Gerry Adams
Mr Adams urged the terror group to embrace peace

It is true that his west Belfast speech had real content and what he has now said cannot be unsaid.

But you would have to be very naive not to think that the timing - at the start of an election campaign - was propitious.

A cynical SDLP leader, Mark Durkan, told the BBC's Inside Politics programme that apart from condolences on the death of his mother and congratulations on the birth of his daughter there was nothing he took from Sinn Fein at face value.

The Adams initiative and the IRA's response will clearly dominate the nationalist election campaign.

Sinn Fein will cite it as evidence that the peace process still has momentum and that voters should trust their leader's ability to deliver peace.

By contrast, the SDLP will set it against the backdrop of alleged IRA criminal activity and mimic Jack Charlton's old football doctrine, arguing that the only way to get republicans to make concessions is to "keep 'em under pressure".

SDLP leader Mark Durkan
Mark Durkan is hoping the SDLP will gain seats

The pressure, though, remains very much on the SDLP who are defending their last redoubts.

The party has decided against standing aside in West Tyrone in favour of hospital campaigner Kieran Deeney, thereby virtually guaranteeing Pat Doherty's re-election.

The division of the unionist vote in South Belfast has assisted Alasdair McDonnell in his argument that the seat is winnable, but he will need a very strong following wind.

Assuming Newry and Armagh is lost and South Down is safe, much hangs on Foyle.

John Hume's apprentice, Mark Durkan, is doing his best to hold the gates fast.

But with Mitchel McLaughlin camped outside the city walls, it would be a brave pundit who would predict with any certainty who will emerge victorious from this latter day Siege of Derry.






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