Whatever rose at Easter 1999 in Ireland, history will record that it was not hope. A succession of republican spokesmen, addressing various commemorations last weekend, seemed to deliver an uncompromising message in relation to the contentious issue of weapons decommissioning. They said, to put it simply, that the IRA will not do it. Indeed, what was an obstacle to talks in 1995 and an agreement in 1998 remains an obstacle to implementation of that agreement today.
Coming just over a week away from the reconvening of the talks on April 13, which are specifically intended to resolve the issue, the speeches make for depressing reading.
As expected, the person chosen to deliver the hardest line was Brian Keenan, a veteran IRA man from Belfast.
"I don’t know where they get this word decommissioning, because it strikes me they mean it like it is a surrender," he said, speaking in County Monaghan on Saturday afternoon. "There will be no surrender."
Clearly, Northern republicans have more in common with Ulster loyalists than they might think.
Likewise, in Belfast’s Milltown Cemetery, Mitchel McLaughlin, the Sinn Fein chairman who often presents the "moderate" face of Provisional republicanism, hit hard with his message that decommissioning "must not be a precondition."
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"We cannot deliver on the Unionist demand to decommission no matter in what way it is presented," he said, underscoring the fact that the subject of disarmament is no longer a security issue but a political one.
Farther North, in Derry, Pat Doherty, Sinn Fein’s vice president, denounced the demand for the handover of some weapons as "unreasonable" and accused the Unionists of trying to "delay, dilute, minimize and for some that may mean collapsing this process."
In Sligo, at the Easter Rising commemoration ceremonies, leading republican Gerry Kelly distanced Sinn Fein from last week’s declaration from both governments that outlined a plan for the setting up of a "shadow executive" to be followed by a national day of reconciliation at which a decommissioning gesture would take place — though it was termed putting some arms "beyond use."
Kelly dismissed it as a "vague" proposal in which Sinn Fein was not involved and warned: "If it is or becomes a demand for decommissioning under another name, then it is doomed to failure. Sinn Fein has made it clear that it cannot deliver an IRA surrender of arms."
There was little or no relief in the words of the party’s president, Gerry Adams, from what the governments must see as the uniformly negative message coming from Sinn Fein. Adams repeated the party’s Easter 1999 message. Disarmament, he said, is "something which the IRA has made it clear it feels under no obligation to do." The use of the word "obligation" was especially pointed, since this was the very term employed in the governments’ declaration a few days before. It was used in order to reassure the IRA that it was not thinking of decommissioning as a "precondition." It would seem then that that strategy too has failed.
Sinn Fein officials have accused the Unionists of making absolutist demands. But they too have adopted what appears to be an absolutist position by arguing that not only is decommissioning not a precondition, it is not even an obligation under the agreement. Such an argument, if sustained next week when the talks are reconvened, would banish any hope of a compromise. The talks would fail, and the agreement would go down the tubes.
However, it is well to set these remarks in context. The commemoration of the Easter Rising, which gave birth to the IRA, is not the occasion to talk about gestures of disarmament, whatever way it is phrased. It has also to be remembered that the terms of the refusal to decommission or ask the IRA to decommission were specific. They were "Unionist demands" that were equated with "surrender." It is quite possible that republicans could accept an arms gesture that could be interpreted as none of those things. One thing that has emerged from the peace process it is the capacity of Sinn Fein to bend words to suit its political purposes.
Still, this is not to underestimate the seriousness of the situation that will confront the parties to the agreement next week. Bending words is one thing. Hammering AK-47s into plowshares is a lot more difficult. If the circumstances cannot be created under which it can be done, then, effectively, this stage of the peace process is doomed. History, former talks chairman George Mitchell said last week, may have forgiven the parties if they had not reached an agreement in the first place; it will not be so generous if they now fail to implement it.