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16 December 2004 Edition

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Making peace with guns

BY JIM GIBNEY

This is a "defining moment" in the Peace Process, said Gerry Adams at a press conference last Thursday, a few hours after the IRA had issued what is clearly their most advanced position since the declaration of their first cessation in August 1994, ten years ago.

There have been many 'defining moments' over the last decade, created principally by IRA initiatives, which gave a much-needed boost to the Peace Process when it was flagging due to the failure of either the British Government or unionists to honour their side of a bargain.

However, the latest offer from the IRA is fundamentally different from all that has gone before it.

It is difficult to find a single word or phrase that hasn't already been used, in the Peace Process to sum up the significance of the IRA's latest position — 'profound' comes fairly close.

Gerry Adams, at the same press conference, correctly said that the IRA's statement was a "declaration of peace".

It was that, plus a declaration of peaceful intent.

For me, this means if the British Government's political and security people and the unionists accept this very generous offer from the IRA, then we are in the end game of a conflict that has raged, in various violent forms, from the plantation of Ireland in the 17th Century by the English Government.

It will also mean we have entered a Peace Process that cannot be described in any other way but real and genuine.

The significance of the IRA's statement is to be found in the trajectory of history from December 2004, back through the uprising in Belfast and Derry in 1969, the '56-'62 campaign, through the War of Independence from 1919 to '21, to the 1916 Rising, the Fenians, the Young Irelanders' revolt of 1848, Emmet's rebellion of 1803 and the 1798 Rising.

This is the lineage of armed separatist republicanism, what people describe as physical force republicanism. It is where the modern IRA's roots are.

The IRA's statement of 9 December 2004 will in time be seen as much more important than the statement it issued declaring its first cessation.

It will be seen as much more important than the three occasions when the army put arms beyond use.

The IRA's offer provides the British Government with an unprecedented opportunity to change its Irish policy from one that relies on military coercion to one of peaceful disengagement.

The British Government can now, without fear or threat, legitimately become a persuader for their departure from Ireland. There has not been a British Government in history that has been faced with such an offer.

The IRA's offer provides the nationalist and unionist people of this island with an opportunity, which they haven't had in 400 years, to re-define their relationship with each other and build a new one based on the absence of coercion from either side.

It holds out the prospect of liberating people in Britain and Ireland from the entrenched positions which history has bequeathed us.

The IRA is, metaphorically speaking, no longer pointing a rifle at the British Government's head.

It is no longer pointing a rifle at the heads of unionists, who have provided a loyal population the British Government has relied upon to defend its centuries-old policy of colonisation and occupation of Ireland.

Sinn Féin Councillor Tom Hartley often figuratively speaks about the position of unionists and northern Protestants in these terms: "They arrived in Ireland in English ships. They were deposited on the dockside. They stood there watching the English ships leave without them for England. They turned round towards Ireland and saw the white-eyed natives bearing down on them. They never left the dockside."

There have been other similar descriptions: An Unsettled People was the title of Susan McKay's classic book on unionists.

After the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, Ulster Unionist MP Harold McCusker said unionists were "living on the edge of the Union".

Former Moderator of the Presbyterian Church John Dunlop titled his book about Protestants in Ireland, A Precarious Belonging.

What the IRA offer, if accepted, can do is help create the conditions whereby the unionists can leave the 'dockside', settle down and belong as a people in Ireland, their home, turn their eyes towards the rest of us and if they want to keep a weather eye on England, that's fair enough.

The IRA offer also provides an opportunity to those from all walks of life across this island who seek a united Ireland using exclusively peaceful means to step forward and work to that end.

Those united Irelanders who vote for Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, Labour, the PDs, and the SDLP now have a peaceful project to re-unite Ireland.

The leaders of their political parties might baulk at the idea of such a campaign but that's the road, which now lies open to republicans across this island.

The IRA's statement is borne out of confidence about the future of the republican struggle.

For 30 years or more, the IRA led the way for liberation movements across the world who were forced to use guerrilla tactics to challenge their more powerful opponents.

Those still involved in armed struggles continue to look at the IRA and how they have handled their input into Ireland's Peace Process.

The IRA's stewardship of handling peace has been every bit as impressive as how they handled the situation when the war was on.

Those they fought knew well the effectiveness of the IRA's guns.

Those guns played a decisive role in bringing us to the point where the IRA backed a peace strategy.

While at peace, the IRA continues to effectively use its guns to anchor the Peace Process and to set in train irreversible change for all the people of this island.

To republicans it's putting arms beyond use.

To the vast majority of people on this island and in Britain, it is making peace with the instruments of war and that is no bad thing for us all.

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