Peace is strongest weapon in IRA armoury


"WE cannot win the peace and we cannot win the war", The Irish Times quoted a Sinn Fein delegate as saying at the party's recent ardfheis. The tenor of the reporting of the ardfheis suggested such a glum mood among delegates, a belief that the peace process was in a limbo and that there was no overwhelming consensus on, what to do next.

The reality is different. Republicans can win the peace, but they can never win the war. The biggest problem they may have is fully understanding their gains since the peace process began and how little time they have allowed for their overall peace strategy to play out.

The internationalisation of the Northern Irish conflict has been an astonishing development over the past few years, and one not fully understood in Ireland itself. To have an American president and US Congress directly involved was the pipedream of every Irish revolutionary and political leader from Wolfe Tone on. Now it is a reality. But it can easily be lost for ever.

Violence means that republicans will be eternal outsiders with little direct say when the final shape of a settlement on Northern Ireland is being made. In addition, the links they need to establish both on the island of Ireland and internationally to have their policies implemented will never be forged.

An all out return to war by the IRA will not succeed. It would achieve another generation of occasional military successes side by side with botched operations such as Enniskillen and Warrington, all of which would force a hard edged response from the British security forces which may include internment. At best the IRA is looking at a long drawn out stalemate with no international support and with the development of any political strategy severely hampered by the continued violence.

At some point because the armed struggle will exist in virtual isolation, the limits of the IRA matrix will be evident. Worse, the long term potential of another campaign of violence to turn off public opinion in the Irish Republic and Irish America could result in a fatally weakened nationalist consensus when the time comes to deal. The IRA has accepted that such a consensus is necessary.

On the other hand, a decade of commitment to political activism by Sinn Fein could have a vastly different outcome. The million dollars or so yearly funding from America, which no other Irish party can hope to match, can help Sinn Fein build the best political machine on the island of Ireland.

As anyone who has spent time with senior Sinn Fein personnel will attest, the party's best resource at present is the calibre and depth of its political leadership, which has mightily impressed Americans from the President of the United States on down. Using the funding, it can also build a coherent base in the South, that at some point in the future it can become part of a coalition government there.

Meanwhile, in the North, as the nationalist demographic creeps ever closer to the all important 50 per cent Sinn Fein and the SDLP, in a post violence scenario, may well decide that a fusion party presenting a united nationalist front is the best way forward. It is entirely possible" that either linking with other parties, or on their own, the nationalists could eventually form a majority.

On the international stage, Bill Clinton, if elected, will continue to make peace in Ireland a major priority of a second administration. It is clear from his remarks around St Patrick's Day that he considers he can do more on this issue - and has no intention of giving up on it as some British critics have argued. The republican movement must decide whether it wants the most powerful, man in the world as the best friend it, will ever have, or as yet another turned off Irish American.

If the Irish issue is seen to work for Clinton, then the permanent bureaucracy at the State Department and the National Security Council will get the clear message that it must also figure in the future, irrespective of who is in the White House. Recently Bob Dole made this very point about continuing the Clinton Irish policy when interviewed, citing the fact that President Clinton: continued Reagan/Bush policy on the Middle East as an example.

However, if the peace process collapses this time, no future administration will touch it and the State Department et al will go back to the cosy London/Washington consensus.

Irish American influence will also be irreparably damaged by a return to violence. After painstakingly rolling the rock up the hill and finally finding an administration that was responsive to their issue, Irish Americans stand to lose enormously - if there is a return to violence. Not too long ago, having a congressman from the Bronx at an activist Irish American event was considered an accomplishment. The notion of an American president strolling down the Falls Road to meet a Sinn Fein president was fanciful in the extreme, as was Sinn Fein representatives raising millions in America.

The presence of so many Sinn Fein officials on US national media and on speaking tours in the US has created a sea change in perspectives on the Irish issue. The US from the time of the first Adams visit has been the springboard for a worldwide platform for Sinn Fein to get its point of view across.

Its analysis certainly registered. It, was interesting to note how many major media outlets, including The New York Times, effectively pointed the finger at the British as well as the IRA when the ceasefire broke down.

The US factor should not be overlooked. The republican movement, needs to set its sights beyond the republican neighbourhoods where its core support is, to the international arena where the real fight will be waged in the next decade or so.

Yes, the British will continue to play at "perfidious Albion", but the IRA, of all people, should not be surprised by that. The difference now is that deals arising out of the all party, talks will be underwritten by the US and will be virtually impossible for the British to renege on.

President Clinton stated as much when he said, on March 15th, "our involvement ... presumes the integrity of any agreement which would be made".

But attempting to coerce the IRA to call another ceasefire is also a mistaken policy. After 25 years of fighting the British forces and everything that could be thrown at it, it is not about to be coerced into anything. Rational argument about how best to achieve its objectives through politics is the only way to counter the argument of force.

The political matrix joining Sinn Fein, a nationalist Irish consensus and Irish America, including the US president, is the only way to achieve the goal. A return to violence can only impede that.

The republican movement now has a choice, whether it wants to be a major inside player with increasing strength in deciding the issue of Northern Ireland or whether it wants to stay on the outside and remain isolated. It should not be a difficult decision.