The vicious bombing that ripped through Omagh, Northern Ireland, on Aug. 15 took the lives of 28 people--Protestants and Catholics alike. This act has been universally condemned throughout Ireland and the world. Such savagery can never be redeemed. But the bomb has also blown a hole in the precarious peace process that has been inching its way forward. The people of Ireland are again looking toward leaders who could provide a way for them to finally put an end to the violence. Much of their hope is focused on Gerry Adams, leader of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Provisional Irish Republican Army. How Adams demonstrates his leadership in the coming weeks may determine whether the peace process survives.
Adams is in a dicey position. In the past two years, he has skillfully led Sinn Fein and the Provisional IRA into a democratic process unimaginable just a few years ago. He has long been not only an ideological defender of "physical force" Republicans (who favor a united Irish Republic) but also, as many experts on Northern Ireland argue, a leader himself of IRA soldiers. In the past, he fought to drive the British from Northern Ireland and unite Ireland through a protracted war.
The so-called Real IRA, a splinter group of the Provisional IRA, perpetrated the Saturday massacre. It has repudiated Adams' move toward democracy and peace and clings to the violent tradition from which Adams is trying to wrench his wing of the republican movement. The group claims Adams has made unnecessary "compromises" with the British that make the goal of a united Ireland unattainable. The bomb was a declaration of war against the whole Sinn Fein leadership and the peace process itself.
Adams' dilemma is clear. The future of the peace process and the fledgling democracy of Northern Ireland rests to a large degree in his hands. He must act decisively to help put down the threat of continued violence. Adams undoubtedly knows who the dissidents are and how they operate. Before the current peace effort, they were his comrades in arms.
There is some historical precedent in Ireland for a man of war turning against those who would continue fighting when the possibility of peace is within reach. Historian Tim Pat Coogan said recently that Adams has come to his "Michael Collins fork in the road."
Collins negotiated the treaty that established the 26-county "Free State" of Ireland in 1921, after a bitter war with Britain. Collins had brilliantly masterminded the Irish strategy. He was ruthless and uncompromising in battle. But as a negotiator for peace, he knew compromise was necessary to end the bloodshed. Like Adams today, Collins regarded the treaty he signed as a transitional document on the way to complete freedom.
The new state, which excluded six counties in the northeast, established its own Protestant-dominated assembly and retained its link to Britain. Members of the southern Free State government were required to take an oath of allegiance to the king of England, a gesture many Irish soldiers regarded as a violation of sacred principle. Antitreaty forces repudiated the Irish government that had accepted the treaty, and took up arms.
Collins, commander-in-chief of the pro-treaty Provisional Government armed forces, moved against antitreaty soldiers, his previous brothers in arms. He saw that his primary responsibility was ensuring a stable and peaceful future for the new state. But Collins was later ambushed and killed by his former allies.
Adams' situation may not be as stark as the one Collins faced. He has generated international support by successfully engaging Irish Americans and President Bill Clinton in Northern Irish issues. British Prime Minister Tony Blair has a comfortable majority in Parliament and, unlike his predecessor John Major, is not dependent on Northern Irish Unionist votes for political survival. And in May, more than 71% of the voters in the peace referendum gave pro-agreement parties a democratic mandate.
But Adams has discovered what Collins learned before him--that accepting the responsibility of political power leads inevitably to compromise, and that when a bloody sub-cult with an aversion to democratic politics attempts to make society ungovernable, it must be stopped. The question for Adams and the Provisional IRA is whether they will help the security forces complete the task of removing the dissident factions as a threat to peace. It is not unlike the decision Collins had to make.
Although he unequivocally condemned the Omagh bombing, Adams has still refused to state that the IRA war is over. As recently as Aug. 3, he said the war will be over only when "the British army of occupation demilitarizes, when all of the prisoners are free and when there is justice and equality."