By Jim Gibney (for the Irish News)
The declaration by the IRA that the armed struggle was over received worldwide political and media attention.
The significance of this mould-breaking development was not lost on many commentators who assessed the IRA’s statement in an historical context.
There is no precedence for the IRA calling off its campaign in conditions similar to those which currently exist.
There were periods, when the IRA dumped arms - following the end of the civil war in 1923 and at the end of the 1956-62 border campaign.
The republican struggle was at it lowest point both times.
Then political circumstances forced republicans to retreat, reorganise and rearm.
The circumstances of today are completely different.
The IRA’s move was bold, courageous and daring.
It was taken at a time of great strength.
Republicanism is stronger than it has been for nearly a century.
In the six counties Sinn Féin is the lead party on the nationalist side and in the south is set to advance further at the next general election.
Last year’s European election clearly indicates that Sinn Féin’s electoral appeal has not peaked, north or south.
The circumstances could not have been better for the IRA to leave the political stage. They helped forged the conditions which led to the peace process and the spectacular growth of Sinn Féin.
Their departure opens up a new and exciting political scenario for those interested in campaigning peacefully for Irish unity and independence.
Armed struggle, particularly one that was protracted as happened here, appealed to a small yet powerful constituency who were capable of inflicting and enduring much.
The armed struggle had a limit to its popular appeal because it was a conspiracy and was clandestine.
Organisations like the IRA relied on a small number of activists to prosecute the war.
This rendered the vast majority of the population to supporters or spectators, not participants in the independence movement.
The political objective of the IRA - reunification - reflects the views of the vast majority of the population of this island.
Although they did not enjoy this mandate. They were the cutting edge of this expression in a very direct way. This is because they inherited an armed constituency with clear political objectives, which has existed here since at least the time of the United Irishmen.
The strength of this constituency has fluctuated over the last two centuries but it has endured and politically shaped the Ireland of today.
Armed force directly led to the establishment of the first independent Irish government with responsibility for governing the 26 counties.
Failure to complete the national revolution and the injustice arising from the British government’s involvement here ensured the periodic outbreak of armed conflict.
It is therefore all the more remarkable while there is English government in Ireland that the IRA should say in its historic statement, “We believe there is now an alternative way to achieve this (a united Ireland) and to end British rule in our country”.
Gerry Adams responding to the IRA’s statement in a speech titled ‘Seize the Moment’ said the IRA’s initiative “presents an unparalleled challenge and opportunity for every nationalist and republican”.
In broad terms four-fifths of the population of this island when asked declare themselves in favour of reunification.
It is this constituency who need to be directly involved in the struggle for independence.
The IRA leaving the stage provides an unprecedented opportunity to mobilise this powerful section of Irish opinion.
Beyond Sinn Féin’s supporters there are republicans who vote Fianna Fail, Fine Gael, Labour and SDLP.
Their republican voices are silent.
They lack a cohesive republican identity.
Their political weight is thinly spread across all the main nationalist parties.
Sinn Féin has to give a lead to and help shape this republican aspiration as they have shaped northern republicanism.
Prior to partition the dynamic popular centre of the struggle for independence was across the 32 counties.
Following partition this momentum shifted to the six counties.
The new political situation created by the IRA’s departure will allow the dynamic to be once again located in a national context.
The task for republicans is to peacefully mobilise this sleeping giant and through it secure Irish independence.