He is not known for remorse. P. O'Neill exists only as a nom de guerre, but as the signature on every terse statement issued by the Irish Republican Army over decades of conflict, his name is recognized and feared across Ireland. Occasionally O'Neill has admitted "regret" over unintended deaths. Mainly he has justified attacks and threatened others.
Until last week, when O'Neill suddenly said sorry. In a brief, unexpected declaration, the I.R.A. issued a blanket apology for the more than 600 civilians it killed and the thousands more it injured battling British rule since 1969. In a passage that sounded more like the words of church leaders than gunslingers, the statement said: "The future will not be found in denying collective failures and mistakes or closing minds and hearts to the plight of those who have been hurt."
For most of Northern Ireland's Troubles, the I.R.A. created a hefty share of that hurt. It killed half of the 3,600 people who died British soldiers, policemen and bystanders in the street and injured tens of thousands. It has formally backed peace since the 1998 Good Friday agreement, but even so, many players in the peace process are skeptical. The reason: even in peacetime, the I.R.A. is still the formidable force that Britain could not defeat. Most of its weapons remain intact. Its secretive members are staying active by gathering intelligence about potential targets and assaulting alleged criminals in territory it controls. I.R.A. members are also thought to have a hand in the sectarian clashes that have recently gripped Belfast. A year ago, three suspected I.R.A. activists were arrested in Colombia after reportedly sharing their talents for urban terrorism with left-wing guerrillas there. All this makes Ulster's pro-British unionists fear that republicans could return to full-scale violence if they thought it would profit their cause. Growing unionist disquiet about the I.R.A.'s true aims has led British Prime Minister Tony Blair to prepare a warning for the I.R.A. and other armed groups this week.
O'Neill's apology was a clever way of heading off some of that pressure, and some saw it as just a P.R. ploy. "I am very skeptical and cynical," said Jim Dixon, who was severely wounded in a bombing in 1987 that killed 11 people. Others think it is more than a stunt. Tom Donnelly, whose sister died in a bombing 30 years ago, welcomed the expression of regret because he thinks it shows "the I.R.A. are working toward closure." The idea of closure raises an intriguing possibility: that the I.R.A.'s leadership devised this apology as a way of coaxing its members one step closer to permanent peace. As a British official observed, "the logic of an apology is that you won't do wrong again."
Gerry Adams, a young and ruthless I.R.A. leader in Belfast when Donnelly's sister was killed, is driving the change. As the leader of Sinn Fein, the I.R.A.'s thriving political wing, he told his party last year that their electoral success meant "physical force republicanism" was unnecessary. He even said the I.R.A. would "cease to be." Soon afterward, the I.R.A. made two symbolic disposals of weapons. Sinn Fein held a lavish ceremony in a Dublin hotel for the families of all I.R.A. members who died in the conflict. The implication was that the dying was over.
Irish election results in May mean that, for the first time, a majority of those believed to be leaders of the I.R.A. are also in elected office. And Sinn Fein's Alex Maskey has become mayor of Belfast, a former unionist stronghold. "Many in the I.R.A. know it's only a matter of time until they're stood down," says a former member, now in politics.
The transformation is still tricky, so Adams and his allies take it slow. O'Neill's statement didn't apologize for the hundreds of police and soldiers the I.R.A. has killed, which would have implied that their whole struggle was wrong, and would have caused defections to harder-line splinter groups.
But now that the I.R.A. is in the business of expressing contrition, what practical role can it continue to play? As the peace process has stuttered on, even its enemies accepted it should be strong to keep potential rebels in line and to stop weapons being turned to street crime. Now republicans themselves are implying the I.R.A. is a busted flush. After sorry, the hardest word may be goodbye.