P. O'Neill is still a name to conjure with


Is P.O'Neill still the IRA's spokesman, or has he decommissioned his typewriter? asks Carl O'Brien

He has spent much of his time justifying attacks and threatening others. Occasionally he has expressed regret at unintended deaths. And he has been constantly critical of British "intransigence".

But with hopes rising that the IRA will declare its war is over and that more arms will be decommissioned, is time also up for its paramilitary wordsmith, P.O'Neill?

During his 30-year career he has always stayed out of the spotlight, yet he still manages to retain an expectant audience for his trademark terse statements. Somehow you get the image of a raw ideologue who started work for the organisation with an Armalite in one hand and a typewriter in the other. These days, chances are he is toying with the idea of ditching the incendiary device.

P.O'Neill made his first appearance in 1970, shortly after the split which resulted in the creation of the Provisional IRA and Official IRA. According to Ruairí Ó Brádaigh of Republican Sinn Féin, the name was invented by the then chief-of-staff, Seán Mac Stiofáin. He does not believe it was based on any nationalist historical figure.

The name has been associated with some of the North's most brutal killings, but also some of the major breakthroughs which have paved the way for peace.

P.O'Neill's statements during the 1970s and 1980s reflected an unreconstructed republicanism.

After one IRA bomb in London he wrote: "Although on this occasion the device was a relatively small one at the luxury apartments of senior British political and military figures, it brings home to those who implement repressive legislation and those who enforce it in the occupied Six Counties, that they cannot sit in London in comfort and safety while nationalists suffer . . ."

His tone changed during the 1990s, as the peace process began. This shift became most apparent in July 2002, when the IRA said sorry for the killing of innocent civilians. In a passage worthy of a church leader, P.O'Neill said: "The future will not be found in denying collective failures and mistakes or closing minds and hearts to the plight of those who have been hurt."

Many have questioned who puts the words in P.O'Neill's mouth. Most expect it is Brian Keenan, a member of the IRA's army council. Others say O'Neill changes over time. This week, as Gerry Adams appeared to speak on behalf of the IRA, some mischievously suggested that G.Adams had morphed into P.O'Neill.

While Adams insists he was never a member of the IRA, you could almost describe the Sinn Féin leader as a kind of paramilitary literary agent, always willing to talk up O'Neill's statements but never claiming credit for them.

Now that the political landscape is changing, P.O'Neill himself may form part of the final act of decommissioning.