THEY were 3,000 miles apart, but never had Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness been more united. One born into a republican family in west Belfast, the other drawn to the movement through the grinding poverty and gerrymandering of Derry in his formative movements, together they have formed the axis which has driven Irish republicanism through more than 30 years, and last night made good the swirling speculation surrounding IRA arms decommissioning.
Adams was on home turf, in Conway Mill in the heart of his west Belfast constituency, close to Clonard Monastery where Protestants attacked Catholics as the Troubles broke out in August 1969. The IRA did exist back then, but locals forced from their homes as the streets blazed spelt out the acronym I Ran Away. It was a bitter jibe at the weaponless IRA’s inability to defend its communities back then, a mistake never repeated, and explains why the destruction of weapons - or even putting them beyond use, to adopt a more liberal euphemism - is such a deeply burned no-no in republican areas.
Even as Adams was speaking, the graffiti on nearby walls said it all. "Not an ounce, not a bullet" it read, though the lettering is fading now.
McGuinness, whose elevation this month to chief-of-staff within the ruling IRA seven-man army council suggested momentous change was at hand, was in New York, addressing that other all-important constituency, the American republicans who financed and gave succour to the IRA for most of the Troubles. It is only now, in the aftermath of September 11, that many US citizens have suffered the impact of terrorism first hand, and it was that window of opportunity which gave Adams and McGuinness the chance they needed to push republicans that extra step.
There was also the arrest of three IRA men in Colombia, where they are still being held for aiding FARC terrorists. Adams was washing his hands with gusto earlier yesterday. While Sinn Fein was determined to secure their release, they had been freelancers on an operation which, he said, had never had the sanction of the movement’s leadership. The unspoken message? That Brian Keenan, the old-fashioned Marxist who was chief-of-staff until McGuinness ousted him this month, was to blame for the Colombian fiasco, and had acted unilaterally.
The implication was of treason; the plan to sideline Keenan, a one-time television repair-man who once said the only decommissioning would be of the British state, with the seed planted that Keenan, and with him, hardliners, were unable to be trusted.
After all, he had dragged his feet when he was supposed to speak for the IRA as interlocutor to General John de Chastelain’s International Commission on Decommissioning. He had, instead, spoken for himself, and was responsible for the first collapse of the power-sharing executive back in February 2000.
The approach was subtle yet steely, and swithering republicans were left in no doubt of the historical parallel: the Sinn Fein ard fheis, or conference of 1986, when Adams and McGuinness isolated, dumped and humiliated the old guard led by Ruairi O’Bradaigh. He and his followers were opposed to switching the organisation's constitution to allow it to fight elections in the Irish Republic - a partitioned state of 26 counties.
They lost, and Sinn Fein has made such dramatic inroads since that it is now bigger in Northern Ireland than the nationalist SDLP, honourable yet hopelessly old-fashioned, and is poised to hold the balance of power when the elections to the Dail are held in the Irish Republic next year.
Adams’ address ran to 1,447 words last night, and each was carefully crafted. There was the appeal to the constituency, the historical analysis bordering on romanticism - something McGuinness avoids - and, of course, the ambivalence, just enough to convince loyal but uncomfortable republicans that the leadership is playing a wily game to outfox the enemy.
Opposition politicians recall September 1998, when, again after a terrorist incident - this time, the Real IRA’s bombing of Omagh - Adams said that the war should be over, done with for good. Commentators and politicians who wanted to think the best seized on the move, ignoring the qualification.
There is no guarantee that the IRA will heed the call to make a move on weapons, except that it has never before refused such a public entreaty from Adams and McGuinness : witness the run up to the restoration of its cease-fire in July 1997. There is, though, another scenario, one familiar enough to David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionists: that they will do too little for him to sell it to his increasingly sceptical party. Concreting over a couple of bunkers might have satisifed Unionists back in February 2000, but it may be insufficient now.
Particularly given the timing: John Reid, Northern Ireland Secretary, has until Thursday midnight to decide whether to collapse devolution and return to direct rule or to announce fresh elections, at which, Sinn Fein would, without doubt, score well and moderate Unionism terribly. Mr Trimble will be tempted to clutch at whatever is presented, but Ian Paisley will tell him he is once more buying a pig in a poke.
Adams told his audience: "Martin McGuinness and I have also held discussions with the IRA and we have put to the IRA the view that if it could make a groundbreaking move on the arms issue, that this could save the peace process from collapse and transform the situation. However, I do not underestimate the difficulties this involves for the Army. Genuine republicans will have concerns about such a move. It is to them I address this section of my remarks.
"The naysayers, the armchair generals and begrudgers, the enemies of Irish republicanism and of the peace process, will present a positive move in disparaging terms. That is only to be expected.
"Others will say that the IRA has acted under pressure. But everyone else knows that the IRA is not an organisation that bows to pressure, or which moves on British or unionist terms. IRA volunteers have a view of themselves, and a vision of the Ireland they want to be part of. This is what will shape their attitude to this issue.
"Republicans in Ireland and elsewhere will have to strategically think this issue through. We have all been part of something very powerful... we are now in a good but challenging period for Irish republicanism."
So the gauntlet is thrown down to the Real IRA, formed when the IRA’s quarter-master general split from the Provisionals in October 1997 in opposition to Senator George Mitchell’s principles of peace and democracy, the foundation blocks on which the Agreement was to be built six months later. It has threatened the peace process regularly, always at critical junctures. But its leader is in jail now, it is infiltrated, and Adams and McGuinness appear to have ridden out the storm the Real IRA created. They have, again, won, and an IRA statement is anticipated shortly.
ADAMS: AN ELECTED WESTMINSTER MP
GERRY ADAMS, the Sinn Fein president, has been a pivotal figure within the IRA for nearly 30 years, leading the republican movement through the Troubles and the peace process writes Michelle Nichols.
Born in west Belfast, he was imprisoned in 1972 on the British prison ship Maidstone and later in Long Kesh prison from 1973 to 1977.
He is believed to have held a number of senior positions within the IRA, including membership of its ruling council.
However, Mr Adams, the MP for West Belfast, continues to deny ever being a member of the movement.
But in 1972, at the age of 24, he was considered to be an important enough figure to be released from jail to join the IRA delegation that met the British government in London.
In 1979 he told Republicans that victory could not be achieved solely by military means.
His talks with John Hume, the leader of the SDLP, eventually led to the 1994 IRA ceasefire and helped to provide the backdrop against which the Good Friday agreement was brokered.
There has been internal dissent among Republicans throughout the peace process but there has not been a critical split - testimony to Mr Adams’s party management.
MCGUINNESS: PIVOTAL ROLE
MARTIN MCGUINNESS is considered to have been one of the most influential figures within the IRA responsible for pushing the double approach of developing a political party alongside the armed wing writes Michelle Nichols.
Once one of the key advocates of IRA violence and second-in-command of the Bogside IRA on Bloody Sunday in 1972, McGuinness has played a pivotal role in the peace process.
When the Provisional IRA began to emerge in 1969 and 1970, Mr McGuinness joined and soon rose through its ranks.
Twice jailed for IRA membership, he won one of Sinn Fein’s two Westminster seats in 1997. Mr McGuinness became Sinn Fein’s chief negotiator in the Good Friday Agreement talks and is currently the education minister for Northern Ireland.
KEENAN: HARDLINE VETERAN
BRIAN Keenan is spoken of as the chief-of-staff and the one time leader of the Balcombe Street gang that carried out a series of bombings in London in the 1970s. He is seen as one of the hardest men within the IRA.
He was born in South Londonderry in 1942 and moved to England when he was 18, where he worked for a time with his brother in a television repair business. He returned to Northern Ireland shortly after the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association took to the streets.
From 1972 he was a leading terrorist and was jailed briefly in the Irish Republic in 1974. He helped mastermind a coach bomb which killed 12 people on the M62 in England. He was jailed for 14 years for the bombings.
He is believed to be a dogmatic Republican who would have great difficulty with what the IRA has done.