The Provisional IRA has said it is currently considering an appeal by Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams for it to make a “historic decision” to take forward its struggle through “purely political and democratic activity”.
Republicans were takenn aback at the timing and substance of Mr Adams’s address on Tuesday, and speculation is building as to the nature of the IRA’s response.
The call by Mr Adams for the Provisional IRA to end its armed struggle follows a serious breakdown in the peace process. After backing Ian Paisley’s DUP in its demands for symbolic ‘humiliation’ photographs of the IRA disarming in December, the Dublin and London governments have sought to marginalise Sinn Féin and boost its nationalist rivals, the SDLP, ahead of the British general election, announced this week for May 5th.
Following accusations of its involvement in a major bank raid before Christmas, and the confirmed involvement of three of its Volunteers (since expelled) in the stabbing of Belfast man Robert McCartney outside a bar in January, the Provisionals have come under unprecedented pressure from anti-republican elements to unilaterally disarm and disband.
Mr Adams’s appeal also comes on the day after British Prime Minister Tony Blair confirmed the date for the Westminster and local elections, and was symbolically made in the presence of the party’s political hopefuls.
The speech was welcomed in Dublin and London, but the governments stressed they were awaiting an IRA response. Unionists reacted with open hostility and anger.
In his address, made at Conway Mill in the heart of west Belfast, Mr Adams appealed to the IRA to begin intensive internal consultation to end its armed struggle as quickly as possible.
Speaking directly to IRA volunteers, Mr Adams stated that a political alternative now existed.
“Your determination, selflessness and courage have brought the freedom struggle towards its fulfillment,” Mr Adams said.
“That struggle can now be taken forward by other means. I say this with the authority of my office as president of Sinn Féin.
“In the past I have defended the right of the IRA to engage in armed struggle. I did so because there was no alternative for those who would not bend the knee, or turn a blind eye to oppression, or for those who wanted a national republic.
“Now there is an alternative. I have clearly set out my view of what that alternative is,” he said.
“The way forward is by building political support for republican and democratic objectives across Ireland and by winning support for these goals internationally.
“I want to use this occasion therefore to appeal to the leadership of Oglaigh na hEireann to fully accept this alternative.
“Can you take courageous initiatives which will achieve your aims by purely political and democratic activity?” Mr Adams asked.
Mr Adams’s speech is as dramatic as it is historic, and seems certain to presage further irreversible change for the republican cause.
However, a winding down of the Provisional IRA was contemplated only in the context of the full implementation of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. The failure of the British government to abide by that agreement -- and the continuation of direct rule from London and its military occupation of the Six Counties -- has sharply contrasted with a series of IRA peace initiatives and weapons decommissioning.
In an initial response today, the IRA said: “The leadership of the IRA was given notice of the appeal by Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams. We have noted his comments.”
“The IRA will give his appeal due consideration and will respond in due course.”
Mr Adams welcomed this, while denying accusations by his political opponents that his initiative was intended to boost Sinn Féin’s vote.
“There is never a good time,” the Sinn Féin leader said. “This is about leadership. It is about trying to give leadership in difficult circumstances.
“The thinking had nothing to do with elections.”
Nevertheless, the party is on the brink of major gains in the Westminster elections and a move by the IRA to disarm or stand down could win votes in key areas such as Derry, Fermanagh, South Belfast and South Down. However, the party is also risking the loss of support in hardline areas such as north Belfast and South Armagh.
“It may well just be a device for easing the pressure that Sinn Féin has been coming under on the doorsteps,” said SDLP leader Mark Durkan. “That’s why it is action from the IRA that counts - not words from Sinn Féin.”
DUP leader Ian Paisley said his party would refuse to hold talks with Gerry Adams in any eventuality.
“The unionist population have proved him in the past to be an absolute deceiver and a liar and this is just another political stunt promoting himself as a democrat,” he said.
“There must be a complete and total abandonment of IRA/Sinn Féin and that’s not going to happen.
“The DUP won’t be back in any negotiating table. He has put himself outside the arena.”