Sinn Fein has gone as far as it can


The Sinn Fein statement on violence from Gerry Adams and the expected appointment of Martin McGuinness to the de Chastelain decommissioning body have put in place two large pieces of the Northern Ireland jigsaw. The peace process has gained fresh impetus and momentum.

The White House will be especially delighted with this development. Indeed, the timing could scarcely be more propitious - on the virtual eve of President Clinton's visit to Ireland. Not coincidentally, it also puts the Ulster Unionists on the back foot. A subtext of these two developments could be a Sinn Fein belief that the Unionists must now put up or shut up when it comes to advancing the peace process.

Make no mistake about it, the Irish, British and US governments were all heavily involved in the events leading to the Adams statement and the expected announcement of the McGuinness appointment.

Already, some in the unionist community - but significantly not David Trimble - are seeking to downgrade the importance of the latest developments. But David Trimble must know the reality: Sinn Fein believes that it has delivered as much as it possibly can on the most contentious issue. Gerry Adams has declared that the violence is over. Martin McGuinness is clearly poised to address the decommissioning issue through his appointment to the commission.

For Sinn Fein this is realpolitik - these two developments go as far as the republican movement dares to in terms of its support base. It has calculated that the unionists will respond. There is some risk involved here. But it appears unlikely that Sinn Fein would have made such a calculation unless it had assurances that some kind of positive response from David Trimble and other senior unionists would be forthcoming.

In the past, the IRA has always stated that it will listen to Sinn Fein's advice on political matters. It was Sinn Fein, after all, which convinced the IRA to take a risk on a ceasefire in August 1994, which is the touchstone of this entire process. But despite media suggestions to the contrary, Sinn Fein and the IRA are not one and the same thing. The IRA can accept or reject Sinn Fein's advice and has done both in the past. With regard to this latest political development, it seems likely that it had to be sold hard - to the IRA.

The Sinn Fein statement yesterday that it wants violence to be "over, done with and gone" is a clear indication that it will be seeking to achieve the same end result with the IRA.

In terms of decommissioning, it would be ludicrous to expect Sinn Fein to deliver it fully even if it wanted to. The IRA has made it abundantly clear that any discussion of decommissioning "is a function for the IRA" solely. In that respect, the appointment of Martin McGuinness, Sinn Fein's chief negotiator, to deal with the decommissioning body is a huge advance on this issue.

The Ulster Unionists now face a new reality: significant movement has been achieved on two of the most contentious issues. The deadline for final decommissioning remains well into the future, so the appointment of McGuinness, at this point, may finally have drawn the sting from the thorniest issue which has bedevilled the entire peace process.

To his credit, David Trimble has given the Adams initiative "a cautious welcome".

Trimble now has greater political cover: he can point to the concessions made by Sinn Fein. Now his party must also yield some ground. It is, of course, still considered unlikely that Trimble will engage directly with Adams before or during the visit of President Clinton. But for all that his decision to invite all parties - including Sinn Fein - to a round table next Monday is not insignificant.

It now seems certain that before long the moment that most Northern Ireland people of whatever background or tradition believed they would never see may finally materialise. When and if David Trimble sits down with Gerry Adams, it will be a huge step towards the reality, - rather than the rhetoric - that the war from all sides is finally over.

Niall O'Dowd is founding publisher of The Irish Voice in New York