IRA apology: Some cry opportunism, some dry tears

The IRA statement was timed days before Britain plans to spell out Sinn Fein's fate.

The Irish Republican Army's surprise apology this week to all "non-combatant" victims of its 30-year-long violent campaign against the British state was called both "historic" and blatant "opportunism."

At the level of sheer political tactics, the IRA's apology, say analysts, is an attempt to shore up the flagging 1998 Good Friday peace process.

Unionists, who want to maintain the constitutional link with Britain, say the IRA's allied political party, Sinn Fein, is on shaky ground as part of Northern Ireland's coalition government. They accuse the IRA of involvement in street fights this summer – which would be a violation of its eight-year-old cease-fire accord.

The largest unionist party, the Ulster Unionists, want British Prime Minister Tony Blair to spell out punishments next week for Sinn Fein – including being expelled from the government – if the IRA is linked to violations of the Good Friday agreement.

David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist (UUP) leader, urged Mr. Blair not to let the IRA statement become "an excuse" for easing the pressure on the Sinn Fein. The UUP, which represents the Protestant majority, have dismissed the apology as a "cynical ploy" and "crocodile tears."

But some analysts say that the IRA is effectively declaring the war over. The apology "has to be seen against a wider context than the [Sinn Fein political] crisis developing this week," says Brian Feeney, a Belfast academic and author of the recently published "Sinn Fein - A Hundred Turbulent Years." "It is a signal to the whole community, if they would listen. There is a political element in it, but that's not the whole picture."

Indeed, on a societal level, the IRA's act of contrition is seen by many as genuine and welcome, particularly among some families of about 650 civilian victims of IRA bombings and shootings.

"I am overwhelmed by this statement. I thought that it would never happen. I have read the statement and, to me, it is unambiguous and most importantly it seems unilateral. There are no ifs or buts in it, and a I derive a great deal of comfort from it," said Tom Donnelly whose sister, Margaret O'Hare, a 34-year-old mother of seven, died on "Bloody Friday."

The IRA statement, issued on Tuesday, was timed to coincide with the 30th anniversary of Bloody Friday, one of the deadliest days in the conflict. On July 21, 1972, the IRA detonated 20 bombs in Belfast. Although there were several telephoned warnings, the sheer number of explosions overloaded the police and resulted in disaster with nine dead and 130 wounded.

This week's IRA statement said: "While it was not our intention to kill noncombatants, the reality is that on this, and on a number of other occasions, that was the consequence of our actions.

"It is therefore appropriate, on the anniversary of this tragic event, that we address all of the deaths and injuries of noncombatants caused by us. We offer our sincere apology and condolences to their families."

"There have been fatalities amongst combatants on all sides. We also acknowledge the grief and pain of their relatives. The future will not be found in denying collective failures and mistakes or closing minds and hearts to the plight of those who have been hurt. That includes all of the victims of the conflict, combatants and non-combatants."

The IRA statement follows close on the heels of another signal that its war is over. In April, Irish republicans organized a commemoration for their own dead, the 300-plus IRA "volunteers" who have died over the past 30 years. In Irish, the event was called Tirghra (love of country). Families of the dead were presented with statuettes depicting a lily and a commemorative book listing all the names on the IRA's "Roll of Honour."

Some observers argue that the Tirghra, and this week's apology, are not the actions of an "army" intent on resuming its war with Britain.

"Tony Blair himself said, on the same day that this statement [of apology] was made, that in his view, the IRA leadership has never been further from a resumption of violence than it is now," says Mr. Feeney. "Knowing and believing that, Blair cannot be at the same time be planning to exclude Sinn Fein from the power-sharing Executive. At the same time, it is helpful for Blair to be able to quote the IRA statement – it gives him some cover."

The British, Irish, and American governments gave qualified support to the IRA's apology. But they also said the IRA must continue to take steps to scrap weapons stockpiles, as outlined in the peace pact.

Beyond the current crisis, all sides in Northern Ireland already have their eye on next May's elections – which present another major test of the Good Friday peace accord.

Moderate Protestant and Catholic parties now dominate the Northern Ireland coalition government. But the Ulster Unionists are slipping in the polls. The rival and harder-line Democratic Unionist Party, which opposes the Good Friday pact, is gaining ground.

This week's IRA statement could also help Sinn Fein's fund-raising efforts in the US where the post-Sept. 11 climate is proving hostile for any party linked to violence for political gain.

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