By John O'Mahony
The IRA has offered its "sincere apologies and condolences" to the families for "all the deaths and injuries of non-combatants caused by us". It is an important step.
It underlines, once more, the IRA's commitment to the "peace process". Tony Blair on the same day (16 July) expressed the opinion that the IRA is now further away from a resumption of war than it has ever been.
There is no reason to doubt the sincerity of the IRA statement: people with their history could not make such a statement unless they meant it.
There is nothing in it of disavowal of the IRA's "long war". The statement carefully distinguishes between the "non-combatants" and the "combatants" - RUC and other Northern Irish state forces and British soldiers - they killed. To the Protestants, of course, IRA killing of members of the RUC and the Ulster Defence Regiment was sectarian murder.
This apology is unique only in its general character. There is nothing qualitatively new here: they have "apologised" before for specific acts. For example, Gerry Adams apologised for the deaths an IRA bomb caused at a Protestant religious service in Enniskillen on Armistice Day, 11 November, 1987.
This apology and its timing is a calculated political act to protect the IRA now. US political leaders helped Sinn Fein get the Good Friday Agreement it wanted in 1998. But since 11 September, there has been a threat that the USA would in its "war on terrorism" turn against the Provos. Their connection with "Marxist" guerrillas in Colombia has alienated the US government.
Evidence has emerged that the IRA is keeping itself ready for a resumption of hostilities.
They are known to have organised a raid for files at Castlereagh police barracks. In Belfast in recent months, the IRA has been heavily involved in sectarian rioting. They have shot Protestants in the Short Strand.
As a result, pressure has been growing on the British Government from Unionists for the exclusion of Sinn Fein from the Belfast government in retaliation for IRA violations of the ceasefire.
The Trimble Unionists may themselves be about to go into a new crisis. Within the Ulster Unionist Party, the critics and opponents of the Good Friday Agreement are once more on the offensive against its supporters.
Northern Ireland's First Minister, David Trimble, has set a deadline of 24 July for the British Government to act to punish Sinn Fein for the IRA ceasefire violations.
The credit on Unionist tolerance won by the IRA with its two gestures of "decommissioning" arms has already dried up. A majority of Protestant-Unionist voters think they were swindled in the Good Friday Agreement. A Northern Irish election must be held within nine months, in which Northern Ireland Protestants will be able to give their verdict on the Good Friday Agreement, its results so far - and
on the Unionist politicians who have supported it.
The attention of Unionist politicians, including David Trimble, is now necessarily
focused on the looming Six County election.
The Good Friday Agreement depended on "creative ambiguity": the two sides though it meant different, contradictory, things. People now know what it means. The Good Friday Agreement which the IRA-Sinn Fein is committed to is not Trimble's Good Friday Agreement.
For the Provos there is no contradiction between a general apology for "civilian" casualties and maintaining the IRA. They see the Good Friday Agreement as a stepping stone to a united Ireland.
The truth is that the "peace process" has already moved on from the letter of the Good Friday Agreement: otherwise, Trimble, who does not have the support of a majority of Protestant-Unionist Assembly members, would not have been elected First Minister last year.
Short of a general resumption of the IRA war, Britain will not exclude Sinn Fein from government.