Sinn Fein could win the peace

Tony Blair has thrown down the gauntlet: the IRA must disarm. Nothing else will convince ministers i

For the IRA, this is either an end, or a new beginning. More than a year after 11 September, it had hoped to carry on as if nothing had happened. But the plates have shifted: either the IRA makes a jump into hyper-terrorism, or it stays on the ground and folds its tents.

For the British government, this is a new beginning - even if Tony Blair presented it as an ending, announcing the change, in his speech on 17 October, as a "fork in the road [which] has finally come". That speech took the first step to consigning the IRA into Britain's own axis of evil.

Blair is now saying that the IRA is targeting the democratic process itself. "We can't carry on," he said, "with the IRA half in, half out of this process. Not just because it isn't right any more. It won't work any more." It is a curious formulation: when was it ever "right"? In what way did it "work"? The only explanation that makes sense is that the process worked before September 2001, and now it doesn't. The IRA, after much huffing and puffing, made a symbolic decommissioning gesture early in the New Year: it appeared to think that would be its contribution to the new anti-terrorist age, and that the wind would then blow over. It hasn't.

The British government has established conditions for a parliamentary and social dispensation that are as close to proof against republican complaint as it is possible to get and still retain the facade of democracy. Indeed, the settlement that came in with the Belfast Agreement is hardly democratic at all, as the rest of the UK understands it. No Northern Ireland government can be anything other than inclusive of all the main parties - and nothing can be finally decided if one of the two "main communities" (Protestant or Catholic) disapproves. It is government, or stasis, by communitarian armlock. In effect, the Belfast Agreement laid down that there was something more important than a democratic assembly: the achievement of relative peace.

Thus republicans have to resort either to history, or loyalist violence and sectarianism, to discover a grudge. Even Gerald Lally, a leader of the Irish American Unity Conference, could only fall back on the violent protests organised by Protestants against Catholic schoolchildren at the Holy Cross School for an example of British imperialism. Yet the ugliness of the incidents could hardly disguise the fact that the police were struggling, successfully, to ensure safe passage to school; while unionist and loyalist politicians strove, successfully, to talk the inflamed protesters down. Britain has indeed done the republican movement a great disservice: it has removed itself as a credible enemy.

The IRA has been among the most successful and long-lasting of the "old" terrorist movements. Its first actions were in the 1880s, with the "dynamitards" and the Phoenix Park murders of Lord Frederick Cavendish, chief secretary for Ireland, and his undersecretary. Now, the IRA must decide if it leaves behind the knife, bomb and bullet and embraces the political process - or moves into the super-terrorist arena, both morally as well as in its use of weapons. For super- terrorism in the al-Qaeda manner is directed not against a specific state for a specific goal of national liberation: it is directed against a political system, a culture, a religion, a way of life. Blair, constrained though he is by the presence in the Northern Ireland cabinet of two former Sinn Fein leaders (Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness), was putting the IRA in the same box as al-Qaeda: rebels without any cause that can possibly be conceded.

September 11 cut a swathe through support for the IRA in the US. Those who had vaguely thought that the Irish were, like the Americans themselves, reborn free through the defeat of British imperialism have had to - if they thought at all - think again. Or at least bow to the new political correctness. Last October, the Observer reported that one of the biggest backers of the IRA/Sinn Fein, the US banker Bill Flynn, had insisted to Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein president, that "they [in Washington] are not going to put up with any more nonsense. After Colombia and then 11 September, the time had come for real politics and we had got to decommission."

In the same report, Adams is said to have been told by Richard Haass, director of policy planning at the US State Department and ambassador-at-large for Northern Ireland, that the US "knew everything" about the links between the IRA and the Farc guerrillas in Colombia. "If any American, service personnel or civilian, is killed in Colombia by the technology the IRA supplied then you can f**k off," Haass is reported to have shouted at Adams - who claimed, as he always has, ignorance.

Haass is a crucial figure. The most cerebral of the appointees to Bush's foreign service - he worked for years at various think-tanks, and has written extensively on foreign policy - Haass has not only made clear that terrorism is off the agenda, he has done the unthinkable, and publicly expressed understanding for loyalists, even those behaving badly. In a speech to the National Committee on American Foreign Policy in January this year, Haass told his audience that if the crisis in unionism came to a head, it could result in the collapse of the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement.

Understanding for the unionists, even when they display bigotry, marks a profound shift between this envoy and the pro-nationalist mindset of the Clinton team. That had been to a degree true before 11 September; Haass had been appointed earlier in the year, and the Republican Party is much less pro-Irish nationalism than are the Democrats. But 11 September marked the break: the American welcome for Sinn Fein is no longer automatic.

The more the war on terror continues, the more we are learning about the nature of terror. One of these lessons is that there is no automatic, or even strong, link between misery and oppression on the one hand and terrorist violence on the other. Al-Qaeda attacks grew in ferocity as the Middle East peace process appeared to be going well in the late Nineties, and hopes grew of a relatively prosperous Palestinian state. The Omagh bomb, exploded by the Real IRA in 1998, killing 29 people, came at the height of a successful peace process. Terrorism is inimical to democratic advance and most of all inimical to peace.

The view, prevalent in the US and in Ireland, that the British and the unionists still had to do a bit more to calm the nerves of naturally suspicious IRA officials that it was safe to disarm, has suffered badly over the past year. Indeed, the republic is a good deal more dispassionate about the nature of IRA terrorism than is, at present, the UK. In perhaps the most remarkable section of his speech in Belfast, Blair said: "To this blunt question: 'How come the Irish government won't allow Sinn Fein to be in government in the South, but the unionists must have them in government in the North?', there are many sophisticated answers. But no answer as simple, telling and direct as the question." That is remarkable, because the Prime Minister appeared to be criticising his own policy, implying that it is not just a matter of sophistication but of sophistry. Clearly, he now prefers simple bluntness: what are you doing in government when you still run a private army?

This is not, evidently, a declaration of war, as President Bush declared war on al-Qaeda. The Belfast pact came in a period of optimism years before 9/11 - a period which, said Blair in another remarkable passage, would be unrepeatable now because his government simply couldn't do it. But it is part of the landscape: it was an agreement and it must be honoured.

The aim of the speech was also to try to wrap Adams and McGuinness in to the democratic process, and effect the much-mooted split between them and the IRA. Blair paid them the tribute of believing in their desire to make the agreement work: and he implicitly sketched out for them the possibility of their becoming the leading force in Northern Irish nationalism, if they could make the break.

There is a role that no republican or nationalist has played, but which stands ready for the playing. It is that of the reconciler: the figure who, from the nationalist camp, could sketch out a future for Northern Ireland free of sectarianism. The SDLP's John Hume, in many ways the forgotten crafter of the Belfast Agreement, could not in the end leave the constraints of his own fervent nationalism. David Trimble, the Northern Ireland First Minister, has tried courageously, from the unionist side, but has been rebuffed by nationalists and republicans alike, and undercut by the growing number of unionists who think he is selling them out.

But a nationalist or a republican could take command of the process: indeed, given that Sinn Fein is now larger than the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party, it could best be a republican. That figure could take ownership of the right of unionists to remain British as long as the majority voted for it. He could say that a democratic vote, and that alone, would decide whether or not Ireland would unite. He could sketch out a future in which, even with eventual unity, the unionists would keep cultural autonomy, regional self-government and full civil rights.

It would be risky: some bigot somewhere might put aside a bullet for him. But politics in Northern Ireland cannot move without such risks. The Belfast Agreement gives those who had refused to be part of the state for eight decades a level playing-field, on which they can now groom a champion - not, at last, a sectarian champion but an anti-sectarian one. It is what the time needs. Where comes the man?