'We'll Never Decommission'

"The war is over," said the IRA man, sipping red wine at the Felons Association and Social Club in West Belfast. At a pub in the city center, a sensibly dressed professional woman who used to be an IRA member said the same thing. An IRA man who spent 18 years in jail, another who did 10, an IRA man in Portadown strikingly dressed all in black--they all agreed that the IRA was out of the war business. Nobody's gathering in war councils these days, says the red-wine man: "There's wee meetings and things like that--on local issues." So why not begin turning in your weapons and explosives? Ah, well, that's a different story. Says the man who was jailed for 10 years: "The issue of the IRA's weapons is an internal matter."

It certainly looked that way last week, despite a whirlwind of efforts to make the IRA bend. After the International Commission on Decommissioning determined that the IRA had made zero progress on disarmament, all the big political players went on the offensive to try to salvage the peace process. The Irish prime minister, Bertie Ahern, met with his British counterpart, Tony Blair. President Bill Clinton made phone calls. Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble, who represents the single biggest political party in Northern Ireland, threatened to resign as its leader. That could bring down the Northern Ireland Assembly, since he is first minister in the government that represents the province's first real stab at home rule in a generation. Nothing was working. Finally, Britain's Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Mandelson bought some time--a week, maybe a little more--by introducing legislation in Parliament to suspend the eight-week-old Assembly and yank Northern Ireland back under direct rule by London. That seems likely--unless there is some kind of progress on the question of the IRA and its arms.

If there is a breakthrough, it won't come from the southern edge of County Armagh. The IRA is no monolith, but its wild heart is unquestionably in Northern Ireland's so-called bandit country. In the village of Crossmaglen, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, with its armored tower topped with razor wire, faces the main square. A British Army foot patrol crosses the square, rifles cradled horizontally, fingers on the trigger guards. Irish flags flutter from the telephone poles, and what look like no parking signs, red circles with crosses through them, are actually ruc out signs. Even while an IRA ceasefire still holds, as it has for nearly three years, British forces never use the local roads, for fear of booby traps--which accounts for the helicopters buzzing overhead.

Within a 10-mile radius of this small town, 165 soldiers and policemen have been killed, along with 75 civilians, since the Troubles began 31 years ago. Nobody in Crossmaglen wants to return to that, but decommissioning is another matter: that's evident at Short's Bar. The bar was once destroyed by an IRA rocket-propelled grenade (it fell a couple of hundred yards short of the RUC base). The owner, Paddy Short, claims to still have a bullet in his shoulder from a "dispute" with British soldiers. Short is a well-known supporter of the IRA and the uncle of a British cabinet minister, Clare Short. He once appeared in court as a character witness for alleged IRA commander Thomas (Slab) Murphy, whose farm is a few miles outside of town. (A newspaper in 1985 identified Murphy as the IRA's operations commander in Northern Ireland; Murphy sued for libel and lost, in 1998.) Decommissioning? "Go to hell with your decommissioning," says Short, to much agreement from the noontime crowd one day last week. "The IRA called a ceasefire, and the Army still won't leave."

Slab Murphy's farm straddles the Ireland-Ulster border. To the north, the hills are topped by two massive British Army watchtowers, Golf Two Zero and Golf Three Zero, which were erected to keep an eye on Murphy's farm. When a NEWSWEEK reporter approached one of the houses Murphy is said to use, on the Irish side, several cars filled with men took up positions on roads nearby. A Toyota sedan pulled up, and after accusing the reporter of spying for the British government, the driver said: "You're in a dangerous area, you don't know where you are, and I strongly advise you to leave right away. I'm not threatening you, I'm just giving you advice." Murphy was not available unless an approach to him was made "through the appropriate channels"--which the driver said were the offices of Sinn Fein, the IRA's political arm, in a nearby town. Decommissioning? "We'll just let the guns all rust away, but we'll never decommission, never," said the driver. "Decommissioning means surrender."

A sizable portion of Northern Ireland Roman Catholics, and not just IRA members, are against decommissioning. But polling shows that most Catholics, while wary of decommissioning, still want it to happen by May 22, the deadline set in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. The IRA, outlawed in Ireland and Britain, was not a party to the accord. Sinn Fein was--but it is plainly torn. Under its president, Gerry Adams, Sinn Fein's work toward a nonviolent, political solution to the sectarian conflict has won it growing political clout, north and south of the border. At the same time, it is widely believed by security forces in Britain and Ireland that among the members of Sinn Fein are those who have been members of the IRA Army Council. (Testimony about such purported connections came up during Murphy's libel suit.)

The IRA may be small--with perhaps 200 hard-core active members and a support network of an additional 1,000, according to security sources--but on decommissioning it looms large. Despite Sinn Fein's rising popularity, "the armed struggle has a veto on the political process," says Malachi O'Doherty, author of "The Trouble With Guns," a book about the IRA. Adams, who denies he is an IRA member, says Sinn Fein can neither speak for the IRA nor make it turn over its weapons. But he evidently knows enough about the IRA to issue warnings to people who mess with it. At the outset of last week's decommissioning battle, as pressure mounted on the IRA to budge, Adams pushed back. He warned unionists that coercion was not going to work: if they thought they could play hardball with the IRA, "they're playing it with the wrong people." Is Adams right or wrong? With the clock ticking away in Northern Ireland, we're about to find out.