Bus bomb may give republican doves room to move

 

"BOMBS bring a dreadful sort of clarity." These are the opening words of an editorial on Northern Ireland in the Economist, a periodical which not even the chairman of the Fine Gael Parliamentary Party could accuse of "following a Sinn Fein agenda".

Even if I had shared this view I do not think I would have said so, for fear of adding to the hurt already caused by the bombs. In fact, over this past week my mind has been filled by memories of funerals in the North and by the fear of having to return to the bleakness of graveyards in winter.

Sometimes an outsider can see the situation much more clearly, precisely because he or she is not vulnerable to emotions of this kind. Who can doubt that the bombs in London have jolted the two governments into a new sense of urgency?

That is still difficult to admit. Here's another unpalatable thought that the second explosion, on a London bus, which seemed at first to confirm a sense of despair, may provide a gleam of hope for the future.

Since that bombing I have talked to a number of people with a closer understanding of republican psychology than mine. They believe that the explosion on the No 171 bus could present an important opportunity. There is always within the IRA/Sinn Fein a tension between those who believe that change can only be achieved by violence and those who argue that political methods are more effective.

In recent years, and particularly in the early months of the IRA's ceasefire, Gerry Adams and those who have argued for the political path have been on the winning side. When the ceasefire was perceived as having failed to yield the expected progress, the militarists reasserted their authority. But they, too, have to demonstrate that they can get results.

The first bomb, in London's Docklands, despite the deaths and injuries it caused, was seen within the IRA as a well planned, efficiently executed operation. The second bomb, defused because adequate warnings had been given, confirmed the impression that the IRA could strike at will in the British capital.

BUT the third explosion, on a London bus last Sunday night, was seen as a classic cock up". Not only did the bomb fail to reach its destination, probably the Old Bailey - but the political fall out has been entirely negative. Images of a Hamas style no warning attack on innocent civilians have been seen across the world. The British police have seized sizeable quantities of explosives and bomb making equipment.

This, in itself, may be enough to start the pendulum swinging back in favour of Gerry Adams and give the politicians a brief space in which to save the peace. We have to recognise, though, that the room for manoeuvre is now much more limited, and try to respond accordingly. As one politician put it to me last week: "The problem is that more is required from all parties to rebuild trust, just at the time when it is only possible for them to give less."

This applies most obviously to the position of the IRA/Sinn Fein. However devoutly we may yearn for the IRA to pledge itself to a "genuinely permanent" cessation of violence, the terms on offer this time around are likely to be a great deal less satisfactory than those which Albert Reynolds was able to exact 18 months ago. Peace now will be conditional.

Those who believe, as I do, that this is still a prize worth striving for will have to be prepared to defend the politicians who accept it from charges of "appeasement", to point out that an end to violence, however fragile, provides the only basis on which a lasting peace can be built.

There have been hopeful signs even during this dark period. The Sinn Fein leadership has reiterated, again and again, its commitment to seeking a negotiated settlement through peaceful methods. It has signalled that, if assurances were given on a timetable for the start of all party talks, the IRA might be prepared to accept the six principles in the Mitchell report.

Mitchel McLaughlin, on the night after the bus explosion, said on Questions and Answers he believed Sinn Fein would abide by any unsettlement, provided his party had been involved in the negotiations, and would "sell" such a deal to the IRA. This is a very long way from the pre ceasefire situation.

But more is going to be asked of Sinn Fein, at least in the immediate future while confidence in the party's bona fides is being rebuilt. If the Taoiseach and the British Prime Minister do manage to find a formula which sets a date for talks, but which involves some form of "elective process", there will be an onus on everybody to try and make it work. Gerry Adams is not the only politician with problems. The weakness of John Major's parliamentary position is deeply unfortunate but it is a reality with which nationalist politicians will have to work.

There are resources on which the Government can call. Of these, by far the most important is the continuing sympathetic interest of the United States. But the American card has to be deployed sparingly and with diplomatic finesse.

Senator George Mitchell arrives in Dublin today. His report still offers the best basis on which all parties could move forward. His authority and the confidence which he has managed to command across the board make him a valued adviser and possible ally for the future. But to suggest he should be asked to play an active role now would be premature and likely to infuriate the British just when it seems John Major may be prepared to move.

It is more important to ensure that the considerable pressure which the United States can bring to bear on the IRA is used to good effect, and preferably behind the scenes. This clout exists at the level of the White House and of the Irish American lobby which helped to broker the ceasefire; both are important. Discussions which ensure that Gerry Adams is allowed to renew his visa for the United States in return for a commitment from the IRA that it will pull back from violence would have much to commend them.

Some readers will ask, "Why go to such pains to rescue Gerry Adams and Sinn Fein?" In recent days a number of politicians have started to canvass, once again, the idea of a settlement negotiated between the moderate parties, which excludes the extremists on both sides. The unspoken assumption is that it will be possible later to "smash" the IRA. This is a strategy which has failed for 25 years and which even the British recognised could not succeed.

That is why John Home, who has tried again and again to make such settlements work, saw that it was essential to bring the Provos in from the cold and started his talks with Gerry Adams. Their joint project to take the gun out of Irish politics once and for all offered us the chance to escape from the past. We have to rebuild it.