The master of the long game sits tight

It is Easter Day - the most sacred day in the Irish Republican calendar.

In the drizzling rain last year the Provisional movement is assembling to march through the tawdry streets of West Belfast to celebrate the 1916 Easter Rising and Pádraig Pearse, the IRA's bloodthirsty founder.

The flute bands strike up, the drummers roll and the procession slowly snakes its way forward. But something is wrong. Under the orders of Gerry Adams the marchers are not allowed to unfurl their banners - which bloodcurdlingly commemorate recently dead IRA volunteers. Anything resembling a modern, military-style uniform has been banned.

And oddly, as if this were the Irish equivalent of Morris dancing, a group of marchers has dressed up in historical outfits to entertain the crowd. Armed with a plastic drainpipe done up as a 1920s machinegun they strut forward in their heavy-wool uniforms. Not so long ago they would have been carrying Kalashnikovs.

Notting Hill carnival it is not, but the message from the leadership is clear: the Provisional IRA has been defanged and the Troubles are over and should be forgotten. It is all history now. But, as this week's killings show, Ireland's Troubles are far from over. Traditionally, the Easter Rising ceremony is a big day out for local IRA men, who don cool black sunglasses and berets to impress their girlfriends. More seriously, at the graveside of IRA martyrs, the Easter Day rite becomes an evocation of blood sacrifice against perfidious Albion.

The symbolism is potent. From the graves of dead IRA men springs a fresh generation of Irish patriots ready to bomb their way to the “august destiny” of Irish freedom. It is a message that Mr Adams, son of republican royalty, would have imbibed as a child, like the freshly minted gunmen of the Real IRA.

Republicans are fond of evoking Pearse, a chorus sergeant for the “cleansing” power of political violence, as the litmus test of IRA virtue. Would he have shot those two “alien” soldiers at Massereene Barracks? Would he have approved of the shooting of the police officer in Craigavon? For the dissident republicans the answer is yes.

Mr Adams's contortions over a few banners and speeches on Easter Day illustrate the fragility of his leadership and the threat that the dissidents pose. Like his predecessors he is haunted by accusations of treachery.

Until now he has performed a deft but impossible political illusion. Painstakingly over the past 30 years he has cranked the edifice of Irish republicanism up off its violent foundations and shifted the whole structure on to fresh but unstable ground.

Inevitably, Mr Adams has traded his great political asset - the willingness of his followers to kill - for grubby but substantive political gains. He has horse-traded “Irish freedom” over coffee on the sofas of Downing Street. He has betrayed Pearse's mythic Irish Republic and sold its followers out because in

the real world there was no other choice.

In the toxic theology of the IRA Mr Adams still has to tread a careful line, hence the odd convolution that shooting British soldiers is “counter-productive” as opposed to being just morally wrong. To save his political skin Mr Adams can never publically become merely another standard bearer for British rule in Ireland. And if he ever shares his knowledge of republican dissident groups with British intelligence it will be well away from the cameras.

Mr Adams is the master of the long game - in the short term he is likely to wait and see how the police deal with the dissidents in order to keep his own hands clean. For him the real nightmare would be internecine war with the dissidents turning on the provisionals. Always heavily protected, he will step up his own security. He has never forgotten the fate of Michael Collins - ambushed by his former comrades in the IRA.

Mr Adams is the most successful republican leader since Collins. And there have been rewards - peace and an end, albeit temporary, to the Troubles. Some, however, have had greater rewards than others. Mr Adams has a nice house in Donegal and his leadership circle have prospered through their sinecure jobs courtesy of the British taxpayer. Perfidious Albion has been generous.

But Ireland is no more united than it was in 1922. And Sinn Féin, sunk into insignificance in the last elections in the South, is unable to articulate how the current Stormont settlement leads to a united Ireland and something more than jobs for Mr Adams's boys.

In West Belfast, the republican heartland, his political machine is slick, suffocating, thuggish and ready to isolate all those within the “republican family” who question the long betrayal. No one is immune from the leader's wrath if they dissent and ask - what was all the sacrifice of the 1970s and 1980s for? Did Bobby Sands starve himself to death so that Martin McGuinness, a legendary IRA man, could become a minister of the British Crown in Ireland?

Even Brendan “the dark” Hughes, Mr Adams's old Long Kesh cellmate, was cast out into the wilderness. “I would have taken a bullet for Gerry Adams but perhaps I should have put a bullet in him,” said Hughes despairingly.

By their latest killings, the republican dissidents are reminding us all that Gerry Adams does not have a monopoly on the theology of republicanism. They intend to go on with the killing until they are stopped. Like the poor, Ireland's Troubles are always with us.

Kevin Toolis, the author of Rebel Hearts: Journeys Within the IRA's Soul.