Governments are playing it cautious


Two statements by the IRA - one public and one secret - were being treated with caution, writes Gerry Moriarty, Northern Editor

The potential for Northern Ireland leaping out of the trough of political stalemate into a new era free of a paramilitary stranglehold was opened up by two statements from the IRA last night - one secret, one public.

The public one was a holding statement repeating the IRA's commitment to the peace process and its desire to see it succeed.

The secret one will only be issued if the British and Irish governments first publish their blueprint.

The public statement carried a hint of promise that in the second statement the IRA would demonstrate that it was going out of business and that this would be reinforced by a third act of decommissioning.

But caution was the watchwords of the British and Irish governments last night. The Taoiseach, Mr Ahern, and the British Prime Minister, Mr Tony Blair, still believe that the IRA tried to sting them last week with their originally-intended response to the blueprint.

Efforts were made to mend differences over the weekend in which US specialist on Ireland Mr Richard Haass also played a productive and calming role. However, there was a still smouldering annoyance in Dublin - more so than in London, in fact.

That was because the Irish Government had the chief role in figuring out from the IRA what it would deliver in return for a comprehensive set of proposals to demilitarise, devolve responsibility for criminal justice and policing to Northern Ireland, ensure IRA "on the runs" did not spend a moment in jail, and numerous other commitments.

Dublin felt the IRA had not delivered. So, last night Mr Ahern and Mr Blair decided they would not be bounced into any speedy response. They would analyse the secret IRA text in great detail. If the wording meant the IRA was ending all paramilitary activity and getting rid of arms, then a deal was on.

But if - to use the buzzwords of the moment - there was ambiguity and an absence of clarity, then the visit to Hillsborough by Mr Ahern and Mr Blair might have to be further postponed.

Be assured as well that the two governments were also testing how Ulster Unionist Party leader Mr David Trimble would react to the new text. This IRA statement must also be of an order that it would convince rank and file Ulster Unionists that yes, we can go back into government with Sinn Féin.

After the disappointment and fury of last week, one must tread extra carefully when trying to figure out the intentions of P. O'Neill. Spokespeople for the two governments refused to disclose whether they felt this secret wording would do the trick.

There were some positive signs in the public statement issued last night. The IRA, without being specific, suggested what the secret statement would contain.That suggestion of substantial acts of completion by the IRA must be replicated in the secret text, but in plain language that the governments and Ulster Unionists can understand.