By Jack Holland
If the British go ahead and suspend the new Northern Ireland government this week, it would represent the most serious setback to the long-term strategy of Sinn Fein since the peace process began more than six years ago.
That strategy, evolved under the direction of the party president, Gerry Adams, envisioned Sinn Fein making key interventions in government, north and south. This entailed Sinn Fein getting its hands on the levers of power both in Belfast and, eventually, Dublin. But this week, it appeared that the immediate cost — the decommissioning of some weapons — would prove too high for the grassroots IRA members to accept. As a result, Sinn Fein and the republican movement found themselves in a serious crisis.
Rarely, if ever, has Adams appeared to be so rattled and emotional as he was when it became clear that Northern Ireland Secretary of State Peter Mandelson was serious about suspending the government and reintroducing direct rule by Friday if the current deadlock cannot be resolved.
Martin McGuinness, former IRA chief of staff and the minister for education in the new government, went so far as to predict that such a move would be the "greatest tragedy " to befall Ireland "in a 100 years."
That tragedy threatens to come about because Sinn Fein leaders mistakenly believed that Unionists would not desert the new government over the issue of decommissioning, describing such a course of action as "lunacy" and "madness."
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As a result, unless a compromise is reached before Friday, Feb. 11, Britain will move to prevent the government’s collapse by suspending it, thus saving the Ulster Unionist Party leader and First Minister David Trimble from having to resign.
Though this decision might well be enough to rescue Trimble, it is not certain what will become of the Sinn Fein strategy in the wake of any reimposition of direct rule.
It is the height of irony that it is Sinn Fein that should be so bitter about the threat to suspend the new devolution experiment, since traditionally it has been republicans who have adamantly opposed — often through violence — the Northern Ireland state and its institutions. But that tradition began to change in the early-1990s, by which time the republican leadership had determined to end the armed struggle.
Within five months of the IRA declaring its cease-fire at the end of August 1994, Adams was already maneuvering to have Sinn Fein pass a motion that would allow the party to become involved in a "transitional assembly" in Northern Ireland. This represented a complete reversal of republican policy, which has denied the legitimacy of Stormont as it did of the Dail until 1986. Adams wanted the Ard Comhairle to be given "flexibility" to decide on the issue.
At the time, February 1995, Sinn Fein spokesperson Rita O Hare denied that such moves existed and said, "We would not take part in anything that was an internal settlement." However, Sinn Fein Press Officer Richard McAuley made it clear that the party’s attitude would depend on whether the "structure was part of a transitional arrangement."
While Adams’s plans to put Sinn Fein into a local Northern Ireland government were laid early on, they did not take effect until 1997, after the election which brought Tony Blair to power in Britain, opening the way for full-party negotiations and the Good Friday agreement. Then they provoked a split within the IRA, with several leading members leaving to form the Real IRA in October that year.
Adams’s long-term strategy of getting Sinn Fein into both parliaments was helped last week by the British government, which passed legislation that would allow a member of the Belfast legislature to also sit in the Dail. Sinn Fein was hoping that in the next Irish election it could win enough seats to present itself as a coalition partner for Fianna Fail. However, if Sinn Fein is held responsible for the fall of the power-sharing executive, thanks to the IRA’s failure to decommission, Adams’s strategy could unwind, or at least be set back by several years.