Politics - John O'Farrell finds the Irish in Blair

When Blair drew a distinction recently between the IRA and al-Qaeda, he was able to do so because he

Tony Blair's assertion that al-Qaeda and the IRA are fundamentally different elicited squeals of rage from Ulster's unionists and the Tory press. But his assertion that "I don't think the IRA would ever have set about trying to kill 3,000 people," is accurate and profound, underscoring

his knowledge about Irish republicanism, his shared ethnic and religious heritage with it, and his knowledge and use of violence for political ends.

Speaking shortly after the IRA's declaration of an end to violence, Blair distinguished the republican movement from al-Qaeda, arguing that the latter was driven by a "combination of modern technology and the willingness to kill without limit". The Blair view is that the IRA, at least its leadership, understood the concept of limits. One Sinn Fein strategist describes this as "Catholic group thinking", which can backfire - the Provos were perceived to have "crossed the line". This has something in common with the Islamic concept of Umma. Being part of a world community allows you to understand the motives of your deviant "brothers" in a way that "rational" analysis of evidence does not.

Blair's mother was a Catholic from Donegal, an economic migrant who moved to Glasgow after the death of her father. He has recalled spending "virtually every childhood summer holiday" in Donegal. It was there that "I

learned to swim, there that my father took me to my first pub, a remote little house in the country, for a Guinness". Blair would have been 16 in 1969, and as his father was bonding with him over illicit pints of stout, it is unlikely that he would have missed pub conversations about what was happening just over the border.

His experience at a Scottish public school would have revealed to Blair that sectarianism, then fairly open in Scotland, was not limited to the lower orders after Old Firm matches. Fettes at that time would have been dominated by the culture of the Established Church of Scotland, with few boarders of Catholic immigrant stock from Donegal.

Although five years older, Gerry Adams has some things in common with Blair. Both are essentially pragmatists, and have moved their respective organisations to powerful positions through ditching shibboleths. Dissidents have been isolated and marginalised.

Both men are children of the Sixties, but neither were '68ers. IRA veterans use the revealing term "theological republicanism" to describe those dissidents who opposed "electoralism" and viewed "armed struggle" as the purest means to their ends. These diehards were to Adams what "old Labour" was to Blair. While both can be charming, they can be ruthless when faced with obstruction.

In war, Blair has been an advocate of what the IRA might, for its purposes, have called the "tactical use of armed struggle". His Chicago speech of 1999 laid down rules for "internationalist" military intervention. "War is an imperfect instrument for righting humanitarian distress," he argued, "but armed force is sometimes the only means of dealing with dictators."

Morality may be the motive, but ultimately the use of violence is based on whether it will work. According to this theory, the amount of force needed is part of the moral calculation - placing just enough pressure on the Serbs, for example, to withdraw from Kosovo, rather than occupying Belgrade. Likewise, the combination of ruthlessness and incompetence that created the Omagh atrocity probably would not have happened on Adams's watch.

Both men are religious. Adams is a regular communicant and Blair is inching towards the faith of his mother and his wife. Also, Blair's understanding of theology in an essentially atheist political culture may give him an insight into the sheer inflexibility of al-Qaeda. Middle Britain gets confused by fundamentalism, be it Christians picketing the BBC or suicide bombers from Leeds.

Blair has made a point of reading the Koran and has listened to British Islam. He understands the nuances of faith and appreciates that the line between the personal consolations of faith and the violent expression of sectarian superiority is fine but deep. Marx called religion "the heart of a heartless world". Salafism views sharia as this world's heart transplant. Blair understands the nature of this ambition, and therefore the violence "without limits" required to achieve it.

If Blair had believed that the IRA could not be brought onside, he would not have spent so much effort since 1997. He believed that Irish republicanism could be dealt with because he understood it. For exactly the same reason, he will not deal with al-Qaeda.

John O'Farrell is a Belfast-based commentator. This is the latest in a series of political columns by guest writers

This article first appeared in the 08 August 2005 issue of the New Statesman, Islam: the tide of change