Breandan Morley (from the Blanket)
Hopes for the restoration of a power-sharing executive in Northern Ireland now depend upon Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party, after the two parties emerged as the dominant forces at the assembly elections.
Contrary to widely-expressed pessimism about the possibility of the two parties striking a deal to restore devolution, the reality is that agreement is entirely feasible.
Any deal which emerges for the resumption of power-sharing will have deeper roots than the executive dominated by Trimble's Official Unionists and the SDLP, which spent more time in suspension than in operation.
Neither the DUP nor Sinn Féin will have to fight debilitating rearguard actions, in the way that Trimble had to continually look over his shoulder at both the DUP and supporters of Jeffrey Donaldson within his own party. Apart from politically and militarily insignificant dissident groupings on the Republican side, there simply are no parties more `extreme' than the DUP and SF to cry `sell-out'.
A deal is possible for the simple reason that the gap between the two sides is really not that wide. Paisley is no longer the dominant force within the DUP that he once was, while the more astute politicians within the party, such as Peter Robinson and Nigel Dodds, are eager for a return to ministerial office and recognise that a deal with the Shinners is the only way to achieve this.
The position of the DUP has been to demand the complete disarmament and disbandment of the Provisional IRA before they will discuss sharing power with SF. In this regard, they are effectively pushing at an open door. The question is not whether the IRA will be effectively disbanded (it will), but whether the DUP can bring themselves to sit in government with Republicans even after the IRA has ceased to exist.
Gerry Adams has repeatedly stated his intention to bring about a complete end to `physical force Republicanism' and the demise of all armed groups, including the IRA. Cynics may wish to reflect on the fact that Adams has a history of delivering what was previously regarded as undeliverable e.g. two ceasefires, a Good Friday Agreement that fell far short of Republican aims and, most difficult of all, decommissioning.
This Provisional leadership decided long ago that the future lay in politics rather than armed struggle. Whatever the public praise heaped upon the IRA by the SF leadership, the reality is that the paramilitary organisation has frankly become an embarrassment to them and an electoral liability of which they are keen to divest themselves at the earliest possible opportunity.
The only reason why the IRA has not already been completely disbanded is not because of a lack of will to achieve this at leadership level, but because to push for this before now would almost certainly have precipitated a major split within the organisation. The Adams leadership has always been characterised by a supremely cautious approach to the management of the Provo rank and file.
Deep down, both members and supporters of the IRA know that the game is up and that the organisation is effectively finished. Disbandment is no longer a question of `if', merely of `when' and the IRA will be traded in return for concessions, as soon as the SF leadership believes it is politically advantageous to do so. This has been the consistent pattern from the very beginning of the entire peace process.
The Provisional IRA's war is very clearly over and has been so for years. A formal declaration of an end to the war may require the authorisation of the rank and file at an `army convention', but there is little reason to doubt that the leadership will be able to achieve this. Having persuaded its grass roots to accept a ceasefire significantly short of a British withdrawal, followed by decommissioning of weapons, the Adams/McGuinness leadership is unlikely to encounter significant opposition to a statement which amounts to little more than a recognition of reality.
With the war over and the bunkers emptied of materiel under the supervision of General De Chastelain, the IRA would to all intents and purposes have ceased to exist as an organisation. After all, what is the role of an army without weapons, especially when its leadership has already publicly endorsed a commitment to the use of `exclusively peaceful means'?
There was no turning-back for the Provos from the moment when their ceasefire was restored in 1997. Certainly, since 2001, when the IRA began to put its weapons beyond use, they have been locked into a process with only one ultimate destination, which is the organisation's extinction. Once the position of `not one bullet, not one ounce' was abandoned and the organisation began to disarm, the IRA had taken an irreversible step towards its own demise.
This Provisional leadership will pursue the peace process to its logical conclusion because they simply have nowhere else left to go and have banked everything upon its success. The corner into which they have painted themselves is partially the result of a conscious decision on their part to pursue the constitutional path and partly the result of their own political ineptitude, since they have been consistently out-negotiated by their political opponents. At every alleged `crisis' (yawn) in the process, it is the Provisional leadership which has caved in time after time.
A return to armed conflict is no longer an option. Not only would it consign Sinn Féin to political purdah, it would destroy the Adams/McGuinness leadership in the process.
Militarily, it is well-nigh inconceivable that the IRA could return to war, even if it wanted to, irrespective of how many guns it may yet have lying in rural bunkers. There is simply no appetite among the organisation's grass roots for such a course, still less among the broader public, as the dissident groups continue to discover to their cost.
Memories of the IRA's short-lived and militarily disastrous return to war in 1995, combined with ongoing evidence of the shambles of a campaign still being pursued by elements of the Real IRA and Continuity IRA, are enough to convince most of the rank and file of the redundancy of armed struggle as a viable option.
By the time of its 1994 ceasefire, the IRA was quite simply a busted flush. It did not have the capacity to advance a British withdrawal through its campaign, while Sinn Féin's electoral growth was being seriously hampered by its association with an IRA which continued to kill civilians in botched operations.
It may be true that the IRA was, as Sinn Féin put it, `undefeated', in the sense that it had the personnel and weapons to continue its campaign indefinitely. However, while the war may not have been lost by the Provisionals, it was very clearly in the process of being lost.
All the evidence suggests that the organisation had been thoroughly penetrated by informers at all levels. Journalist Ed Moloney, in his book A Secret History of the IRA, estimates that 80-90% of planned attacks were being called off, for fear that they had been compromised.
The IRA was leaking like a sieve and was being slowly `rolled up' in both N. Ireland and Britain, while the campaign in mainland Europe had ended with the capture of the active service units involved.
Meanwhile, for the first time in the conflict, Loyalists were killing more people than Republicans with the active support and direction of the British state.It is certainly the case that the futility of continuing with a war that was slowly being lost was a major factor propelling the IRA towards peace. There would have been no peace process if the Provos thought military victory was attainable.
The longer the ceasefire has lasted, the less likely it has become that the IRA could resurrect its campaign, even if it wanted to. Organisations like the IRA are progressively degraded by a lengthy ceasefire, as security slackens, volunteers drift away and supporters grow to like the peace.
However, the IRA's war is over not simply due to the military futility of a resumption, but also because of the political character of the outcome to the conflict.
The `troubles' have largely been understood as being about sovereignty over Northern Ireland, but they can also be seen as fundamentally a contest between constitutional and revolutionary methods of politics.
In this paradigm, the conflict was not just between unionism and nationalism, it was also between revolutionary politics, as espoused by the IRA on the one hand, and all shades of democratic and constitutional politics in Britain, the Republic and Northern Ireland on the other.
Central to this contest was the issue of `unionist consent'. Did the Unionists have the right to opt out of a united Ireland, or could Irish unity be imposed upon them in the absence of their agreement? This is the key question which has dominated the national politics of Ireland for over a century.
All the constitutional political parties in the north, the Republic and Britain have explicitly accepted since at least the early 1970s that any change to the status of Northern Ireland could only be brought about with the agreement of a majority of its predominantly Unionist electorate.
The IRA, however, fought for over a quarter of a century to overturn this consent principle, which they scathingly dismissed as the `Unionist veto'. In their world-view, the armed struggle would deliver a British withdrawal and, in the absence of British support, Unionist opposition to a united Ireland would crumble.
The outcome of the `troubles' represents an unequivocal defeat for the Provos, since they signed up to a Good Friday Agreement which has the consent principle as its cornerstone and they were forced to accept the legitimacy of both states on this island as the price to be paid for their entry into democratic politics.
The core issue of consent has now clearly been settled in favour of constitutional politics, since nobody apart from an isolated handful of dissidents is any longer arguing that an agreement on the future of Northern Ireland can be made to stick in the face of Unionist hostility.
As soon as this principle was conceded by Sinn Féin with Gerry Adams' signature to the Good Friday Agreement, the war was already effectively over and the IRA and its arsenal became redundant, except as bargaining-chips to be traded away in negotiations. Since the purpose of the armed struggle was to force Britain to withdraw and compel Unionists into a united Ireland, the game was up once the Provisionals accepted that Unionism had the right to say `No'. Consent and compulsion cannot coexist.
Adams and his allies had pushed for an end to the IRA's campaign in 1994 on the basis that Sinn Féin's involvement in negotiations could `republicanise' the political process. A decade on from the first ceasefire and with a united Ireland no nearer, the most significant outcome of the peace process has in fact been the `constitutionalisation' of the Provisionals.