Jonathan Freedland has a piece in the Guardian today which sums up the present state of the peace process very well, but also illustrates some of the problems of trying to work out what is going on:
After several conversations with key players, two conflicting views emerge of what might be happening inside republicanism.
First, Freedland talks to former Sinn Fein Assembly Member John Kelly:
In his eyes, there is no meaningful space between the suits and the boots: they are both part of a single, "seamless political cloth".
Then to an unnamed republican source:
He speaks of a "shadow IRA within the IRA", centred on two dissenting members of the army council. It was this faction, he believes, that authorised the Northern Bank robbery – with no nod from Adams.
These two diverging pictures recur in a lot of journalistic coverage of the peace process lately:
The problem for the rest of us is knowing whether Adams and McGuinness are attempting to retrieve a situation internally where they have lost control, or whether they have been involved in this carry-on all along. If it is the latter, then doing business with them is hazardous. Vincent Browne, Sunday Business Post, 20 February 2005.
Are hardliners, thugs and criminal elements in the ascendancy, pushing aside those progressives who have brought the IRA on a major ideological journey since 1994? The answer is a resounding no…
…Senior republican and police sources have told Village there are no major splits in IRA ranks, no new hard men at the helm, no freelance operatives running wild. Suzanne Breen, The Village, 19 February 2005.
The British and Irish Governments presumably have a clearer view than anyone else of what is going on, and the hard line they are taking suggests that they believe the latter picture.
In contrast to Vincent Browne, I believe that this scenario is the more hopeful one, as it means that republicans can still deliver a deal like the one that was almost reached in December.
The question is whether anyone else is still interested in reaching that deal. As Freedland remarks, the indications at the moment are quite negative, but we will only really find out after the Westminster election.