Pieces falling into place for solution to Northern Ireland's guerrilla war

August 19, 1994|By Newsday

After 25 years, the world's longest-running guerrilla war may be entering its final weeks.

The Irish Republican Army is expected to announce an indefinite cease-fire this month in its war against the British presence in Northern Ireland, according to well-placed sources.

In return, the British government is prepared to "demilitarize" the Catholic neighborhoods of West Belfast and rural Catholic counties by pulling its troops out of street patrols. Britain also will ease prison conditions for IRA and Protestant paramilitary prisoners, including granting early paroles.

If the cease-fire and demilitarization hold, the stage will be set for even more dramatic changes in the northeastern corner of Ireland.

Both the Irish and British governments are prepared to drop their historic claims on the north, and would create some kind of joint governing body to run it, according to reports from both England and Ireland.

"Those are the most exciting developments mentioned in the press reports in England and Ireland, and of course, I cannot comment on them -- but the better newspapers in those communities are very reliable and well-sourced," said Noel Kilkenny, a spokesman for the Irish government in Washington.

British Prime Minister John Major reportedly has agreed to ask his Parliament to revise the Government of Ireland Act of 1920, which led to the partition of Ireland. The Provisional Irish Republican Army was created to fight the partition.

The Irish prime minister, Albert Reynolds, would ask the citizens of Ireland to amend two articles in the Irish constitution that assert authority over the entire island, including the six northern counties. This would be replaced with language "about aspiring to a unified Ireland, with the consent of the people," said a source in the Irish government.

All this depends on the IRA's agreeing to an unlimited or at least an indefinite cease-fire, which the republicans appear to be committed to but regard as a dangerous maneuver. Paramilitary Protestants loyal to the British crown have become increasingly violent, fed at times with the intelligence reports from security forces.

Under the cease-fire, the IRA would reserve the right to defend the Catholic nationalists against attack by the paramilitary loyalists. Meanwhile, before the IRA lays down its weapons, it is settling scores. In recent weeks, it has assassinated three of the most outspoken paramilitary loyalists.

The last prolonged IRA cease-fire, in 1975, led to a near-decimation of the armed republican movement. When its troops came out of hiding, they were picked off by the British intelligence services. From the rubble of the last truce, Gerry Adams rose to lead Sinn Fein, the IRA's political arm.

"If Adams does come through with a cease-fire, he will have to quickly show the IRA that there are political benefits," said a source in the Irish government. "We will move in very short order to establish a forum on peace and reconciliation in the north, and Sinn Fein will have a place at the table. After that, if it's extended, we are looking at joint talks with all parties."

Several things have come together to make this an attractive moment for the IRA and Sinn Fein to seek peace: The IRA leaders are getting old, and there is a rare semblance of unity with other nationalist forces -- including a new government in Dublin, a sympathetic administration in Washington, and an unusual group of Irish-American business people who were able to deliver both a seven-day IRA cease-fire last year and a visa to Gerry Adams early this year.

In 1986, Mr. Adams of Sinn Fein began talks with his longtime political rival, John Hume, the leader of the Social Democratic and Labor Party, a non-violent political group that represents the vast majority of Catholic nationalists in Northern Ireland.

When Mr. Reynolds became the Irish prime minister in 1992, the nationalists in the north suddenly had a friend in Dublin -- a politician not known for fiery republican rhetoric, but who nevertheless joined Messrs. Hume and Adams in a rare alliance. Mr. Reynolds continues to insist that the IRA lay down its weapons before it becomes involved in negotiations over the north.

"Our position has been consistent: To have a place at the table, they must renounce violence. It must be permanent," Mr. Kilkenny said. "We have no direct links with Sinn Fein. But there are contacts at all levels."

The final important piece to fall in place was the role of Irish-American business leaders, who supported Bill Clinton's candidacy and found a sympathetic ear in the White House for the first time in more than a decade.

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