Will the real Gerry Adams now come forth?
AS IS so often the case, yesterday’s statement from Gerry Adams may raise more questions than it answers. The first of them is more deceptive than it seems: who is Gerry Adams?
Intelligence agencies based in London and Dublin, along with those notoriously well-informed dogs in the Belfast street, will tell you that he is a senior IRA commander, probably even the paramilitary’s effective leader.
In that light, his "call" for the IRA to take the democratic path is an essentially misleading one. Why ask something of an organisation you lead? Simply tell the IRA to chose peace, and it will be so, say the doubters.
Those doubters are legion, and not all of them are on the Unionist side of the Northern Irish divide. Disaffected former IRA volunteers like Anthony McIntyre say Mr Adams rules unquestioned.
"The Sinn Fein leadership effectively runs the IRA," says Mr McIntyre, who served 18 years in prison for murder.
More and more democratic politicians in the Republic of Ireland are inclined to label Mr Adams that way too.
To the sceptics then, Mr Adams’s words should be seen as the simple cynical politicking of a politician whose party is looking to add a few Westminster seats next month, and to also expand his democratic powerbase in the Irish parliament.
There is a lot to recommend that view. Sinn Fein has been forced onto the back foot as never before by the remarkable courage of the McCartney sisters and - equally significant but less widely reported - a range of other Catholic victims of IRA violence.
The unconcealed fury of the Bush White House has also put Mr Adams under unprecedented pressure.
If yesterday’s statement was an expedient trick to buy off the critics, there are many good reasons to think Mr Adams has been looking for such a gimmick.
Not everyone will take that view, though. While few informed observers doubt that Mr Adams is indeed an important figure in the IRA, some say he is far from an unquestioned ruler among the Provos.
Brian Keenan, alleged to be one of the IRA’s most feared and hard-line commanders, is whispered to be Mr Adams’s rival for supremacy within the organisation.
It can be safely said that Mr Keenan, a devout Marxist and former IRA prisoner, has little time for democratic politics and the path to peace Mr Adams spoke of yesterday. Nor would his followers, who question the merits of Mr Adams’s foray into politics.
In this analysis, recent events have thrown the Republican movement’s internal divisions into stark relief. Starting with the 26 million Northern Bank robbery in December and continuing with the backlash to Robert McCartney’s killing, Sinn Fein and the IRA have been confronting fundamental questions about their future.
Far from being joined at the hip, the two groups may even be evolving into distinct entities. Could democratic Sinn Fein one day even cast off its evil IRA twin and emerge as an ordinary political party?
There are certainly good reasons to imagine Mr Adams would be tempted by such a future. Since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, he and his Sinn Fein colleagues have had a glimpse of the prizes on offer to those who win the democratic game.
In the on-off Northern Ireland executive, they enjoyed ministerial office, real power and all the trappings that go with it. Even at Westminster, until recently, Sinn Fein received generous Commons allowances and privileges.
In the Republic, Sinn Fein’s electoral fortunes have soared even as the IRA’s military struggle has wound down. That raises the prospect of the ultimate prize, a seat in government in Dublin.
But that prize can only ever be realised if the Provos forsake violence forever.
Surely Mr Adams could be forgiven if he dreamt of a future free of armed struggle and the stain of terrorism?
If so, the question remains as to how able he is to deliver that future.
Those who believe that the IRA is not a monolithic block will see Mr Adams’s words yesterday as the start of a remarkable internal debate within Republicanism.
If that is the case, other questions will follow. Does pursuing its struggle for a united Ireland by democratic methods also mean that the IRA should give up its criminal activities?
That is no small matter. Some police analysts believe that its crime empire is one of the largest and most lucrative in Europe, maintaining the hardmen in a luxury to match the social clout they have among Northern Ireland’s working-class Catholics.
Who is Gerry Adams? A politician struggling to bend the gunmen to his will? Or a clever gunman wearing a politician’s mask?
The coming months could just provide an answer that would ultimately lead to a permanent settlement for Northern Ireland and an end to the IRA’s long march.
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