If Blair is elected, the IRA can't expect clean slate


"THERE'S a tentative feeling of relief." James Naughtie's comment on the BBC Today programme yesterday morning, soon after the first reports of bombs in the north of England, probably summed up the emotions of the overwhelming majority of listeners on both sides of the Irish Sea.

The Scottish broadcaster was speaking as it became clear that, mercifully, there had been no casualties.

There were other reactions, of course - anger, bewilderment. The mayor of Macclesfield, a woman, spoke of how terribly this part of England, which has offered hope and a new life to generations of desperate Irish emigrants, has suffered at the hands of the IRA - Warrington, Manchester, now Cheshire.

A young woman who was feeding her new baby when she heard the explosion asked: "Why would anyone want to bomb Wilmslow?" So much for what nearly 30 years of IRA violence has achieved in raising awareness of Northern Ireland's problems among the great British public.

For those of us listening to the news and already trying to work out how this latest bomb attack would affect the politics of the peace process, the instinctive reaction was to offer a silent prayer of thanks as the chief of the local ambulance services kept saying: "We have moved no casualties." He made the words sound like a protective mantra which, if repeated often enough, could ward off the terror in the air.

For some time now, since it became clear that John Major was not likely to make the conciliatory moves towards Sinn Fein which might result - in a ceasefire, there have been fears that the IRA, would be tempted to mount some kind of spectacular on the British mainland during the general election campaign.

Not because such an attack makes political sense. It doesn't. But because, like the scorpion in the old fable, this is the nature of the IRA.

MORALLY, the danger to human life, the terror and alarm which even this latest attack must have caused to thousands of innocent people, are in defensible. Politically, it will be more difficult for any future British government to open negotiations with Sinn Fein.

That is what those in this State who have responsibility for advancing the peace process mean when they talk about the danger of renewed violence "poisoning the wells" for any future political negotiations.

There seems to be a belief within the IRA that it will be possible to make a quite fresh start if, a now seems increasingly likely, Tony Blair is elected on May 1st. In this context, the argument goes, it can do no harm to remind British political leaders that the IRA is still around and has the capacity, should it be so inclined, to inflict serious damage on the British mainland.

Clean slates are not so easily available. That is not how politics works. Constitutional politicians, committed to achieving their objectives through the long and often tedious process of democracy, do not accept that the use of a little violence here and there to make a point, as long as nobody gets hurt, is permissible.

Each act of violence by the IRA, even those - like yesterday's bombs - which appear designed not to inflict injury or death, fuels the suspicions of those who argue that the organisation will never be capable of committing itself to the democratic process, that it will always retain the option of the armed struggle in reserve, just in case things don't go the way it wants.

That is why, despite the tentative sense of relief that yesterday's bombs did not cause injury or death, there is still a feeling of dismay that they will have made the task more difficult for all those who are trying to bring about inclusive negotiations in the North. Those who planned the attacks do not understand the situation that will face Tony Blair, if and when he is elected.

It is true that a new Labour government with a secure majority would be in a strong position to take a much more pro active stance on Northern Ireland, and that would be a significant improvement on the last, humiliating months of John Major's dependence on the unionists.

Mo Mowlam, who seems almost certain to be Secretary of State, has demonstrated a much more confident touch and shown that she is well able to. .adopt a tougher and more independent line on such issues as the North Report on the handling of Orange marches.

At the same time developments within Northern Ireland seem to offer a more hopeful climate for negotiations - the willingness of sections of the Orange Order to become involved in discussions with local residents groups, David Trimble's criticism of the wilder shores of unionist politics etc, the increasingly public determination of the business community to argue for a moderation.

BUT the one thing that would push Tony Blair right back into the trenches is any hint of renewed IRA violence, particularly the threat of attacks in mainland Britain.

Faced with that possibility his instinct and, as important, that of senior members of his cabinet like Jack Straw, would be to prove that they are as resolute in opposing terrorists as the Conservatives. That would mean taking as tough a line on such issues as decommissioning, which have prevented Sinn Fein's entry to talks. It is wishful thinking for Martin McGuinness to protest that the IRA's activities should not affect Sinn Fein's progress into talks.

Any illusions that a new Labour government will be more flexible on this score than the old Tory one were dispelled by Tony Blair himself yesterday.

In recent weeks and months, politicians who have been working to advance the peace process in Dublin and Washington have all been concerned to ensure that nothing happens to threaten the progress which, they hope, may be made when there is a new British government. Ideally, they would like to see the IRA announce a new ceasefire before the general election because this, they believe, would greatly help Sinn Fein's political credibility and its demand to be admitted to talks.

This, in essence, was the argument made by Senator Edward Kennedy and other leading Irish Americans over the St Patrick's Day holiday.

Failing this, their aim has been to strengthen those within Sinn Fein who are in a position to convince the IRA that any escalation of violence in the run up to polling day would be wholly counterproductive in its political fallout.

Until yesterday's attacks it had seemed that this message was getting through, that the IRA accepted that nothing should be done to derail progress towards inclusive talks, including a new ceasefire, some time after the British general election. Now the situation seems much more fragile and uncertain.

We are left in a position where we have to be grateful that yesterday's bombs did not cause the kind of human suffering and devastation to property which we have seen in the past. Grateful, but also fearful to listen to the early morning news.