By Ray O’Hanlon
"Ferris denies report that he said IRA would not disarm." "A Sinn Fein leader’s remarks about disarmament mines the road forward."
Whatever their intentions, the headlines that followed in the wake of visits to the U.S. last week of leading Sinn Féin members Martin Ferris and Pat Doherty were not of the kind to soothe nervous public opinion back in Northern Ireland.
Indeed, the two veteran party members seemed to sow seeds of ambiguity every time they spoke, at least within earshot of somebody with a pen.
With only days to go before Ulster Unionists would meet to endorse, or turn down, the latest breakthrough aimed at jump-starting an inclusive Northern Ireland government, both Ferris and Doherty found themselves facing repeated questions about IRA arms decommissioning — and at times, to their chagrin, questions about little else.
"There is an unbelievable obsession with IRA arms even while loyalists are daily attacking Catholics. Why not pose the same question to the British Army in South Armagh? Ask the RUC!"
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Sinn Féin Vice President Pat Doherty was becoming just a little testy on the subject of guns as he sat down for an interview with the Echo.
"Who’s going to shoot the Brits in South Armagh if there’s no Brits to shoot?" he said.
The Good Friday agreement, Doherty was at pains to stress, was a "voluntary act" for the IRA to embrace. Decommissioning would only start after General John de Chastelain met with the various armed groups.
Doherty included both the RUC and British forces in that category as well as the IRA and loyalist paramilitaries such as the UDA and UVF.
The IRA cease-fire, now two years old, had been a "very positive step," Doherty argued. "And yet," he said, "every single day there has been attacks on Catholics and nationalists."
This had resulted in a "limbo land" which had only been reinforced by unionist stalling and prevarication.
The visits by both Doherty and Ferris were aimed heavily at briefing and reassuring Irish-American Sinn Féin supporters at a point when the party is poised to step into absolutely uncharted political territory.
Doherty said that his overall impression was that support in the U.S. for the party’s current policies and tactics was "very solid."
Not quite so solid, in Doherty’s view, was the press. The first hiccup in the process of explaining the latest developments to Irish Americans followed a speech in St. Louis delivered by Ferris, portions of which appeared on a republican bulletin board on the internet.
Ferris, according to the internet report — drawn from handwritten notes taken by one person present, not a journalist — had apparently suggested that the IRA might not disarm even should an Executive including Sinn Féin be set up in the coming days.
The former IRA prisoner was quoted as saying that it would be "political suicide" for Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble to withdraw from the Executive if the IRA did not decommission.
Parts of this report were immediately picked up and printed in Irish and British newspapers. Sinn Féin, in turn, released a statement from Ferris describing the report as "inaccurate and misleading."
"We fully accept that decommissioning is an essential part of the peace process and we will fully discharge our responsibilities in this regard," Ferris said.
In turn, the individual who posted the report on the internet, Jennifer Furey, was quoted in press reports as stating that the internet account was a "fair synopsis" of what Ferris had said during the St. Louis meeting.
The uproar surrounding Ferris was, however, quickly overtaken by another focused on Pat Doherty.
While in Boston, Doherty had met with the editorial board of the Boston Herald.
A subsequent report in the Herald, a paper lately not unsympathetic to the views of Irish nationalists, indicated that Doherty had expressed the view that the IRA was not intent on disarming and that Sinn Féin did not believe that such a scenario would result in the British government shutting down the governing executive.
The tone of the remarks attributed to Doherty in Boston were very similar to those attributed to Ferris in St. Louis.
"Do you think it’s conceivable that if the institutions are working, and the cease-fire is holding, and that the arms are not being used, that the whole thing would be collapsed? That would be just lunacy," Doherty was quoted as saying to the Herald editorial board.
Headlines blared again in the press, in Ireland, Britain and the U.S. UUP leader David Trimble expressed fears of a "double-cross" by Sinn Féin. The fallout was yet another statement of clarification from Sinn Féin.
Doherty expressed his "dismay and deep concern" over the manner in which his meeting with the editorial board had been reported.
In subsequent report it did appear that his statements were primarily responses to questions that included outlines of very specific scenarios.
The report in the Herald arising out of the editorial board briefing also stated that Doherty merely "seemed" to offer "disconcerting clues" when asked if he was confident that the IRA would disarm in the weeks and months ahead.
In one part of the report, however, Doherty was apparently offering more than clues. "I honestly cannot speak for the IRA," he said.
In the fallout from the editorial board encounter, Doherty said in a statement that he had been quoted out of context. "Sinn Féin," he said, "is not in the business of double-crossing or misleading anyone. Such a course of action would be disastrous. We are in the business of making peace."
Never and easy business, and one arguably more complex than never in a week when even the scripted party line looked a little ragged at the edges as a long-familiar political world proceeded to turn itself upside down.