An unsettled peace

Print edition : August 18, 2001

Efforts to revive the Northern Ireland peace process fail as the Protestent Unionists and Catholic Republicans harden their positions on decommissioning of arms by the Irish Republican Army.

IT has been a long, exhausting and spiteful summer for Northern Ireland - packed with political theatre, angry recrimination, and frequent violence. The violence spilled over to London recently when a powerful car bomb exploded in a busy suburb. The incident has cast a long shadow over efforts to revive the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. The three-year-old agreement, fragile at the best of times, was thrown into turmoil in July when the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) chief David Trimble resigned as head of the provincial government protesting lack of progress on arms decommissioning by the Irish Republican Army (IRA), the armed wing of Sinn Fein. (Sinn Fein shares power with Unionists under the Good Friday Agreement.)

Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams.-PETER MORRISON/AP

Hopes of an early breakthrough received a blow with the London blast, suspected to be the work of the Real IRA, a small but motivated group of Republican extremists who broke away from IRA when the latter joined the peace process. It accuses the IRA of "betraying" the Republican cause and has threatened to step up its violent campaign to wreck the agreement which, it believes, has not benefited Republicans.

Meanwhile, the IRA has made what it calls a "hugely historic" gesture by telling General de Chastelain, head of the decommissioning body, that it is willing to put its weapons "completely and verifiably beyond use". But it has not stated how it proposes to do so; nor has it committed itself to a time-frame. However, Unionists argue that the IRA has made similar statements in the past, and they are not prepared to take it on its face value any more unless it sets a deadline for de-weaponisation. Hardliners among the Unionists have dismissed the "gesture" as "delaying tactics to gain more concessions". Trimble, under pressure from his hawkish party colleagues, says he wants to see decommissioning start before he returns to the government.

THE Weston Park Hotel is a stately countryside mansion set in sprawling wooded grounds on the Shropshire-Staffordshire border. It is so jealously protected that parking costs 100 pounds. This is meant to discourage visitors from bringing in their vehicles. It was in this salubrious setting, away from the pressures of local politics, that British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Irish counterpart Bertie Ahern spent almost a whole week from July 9 to 14 trying to save the Northern Ireland peace process.

But their hope that political rivals from Belfast might be more amenable to persuasion in Weston Park's quiet and picturesque ambience was quickly dashed and the much hyped "make-or-break" summit broke up without an agreement amid familiar recrimination. This was the second such "summit" in less than a month to fizzle out. Moreover, it reflected the hardening of positions on both sides - the Protestant Unionists and Catholic Republicans - on arms decommissioning.

Ending sectarian violence in Northern Ireland was a key element of the Good Friday Agreement, signed in 1998, among others, by the UUP, the Sinn Fein and the Social Democratic Labour Party (SDLP). The three joined a power-sharing administration on the understanding that the IRA would give up its weapons as a guarantee of its commitment to non-violence. The Unionists are angry that three years and numerous assurances later, there is no progress on this matter.

The Sinn Fein, speaking for the IRA, says that it remains committed to decommissioning. However, it demanded that the British government must first honour its part of the bargain by recasting the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) to the satisfaction of Catholics and by scaling down the British security presence in Northern Ireland, especially the provocative watch towers in the predominantly Republican areas. The Sinn Fein is not satisfied with the changes already made to the RUC which, it says, continues to have an anti-Catholic bias. On the other hand, the British government is under pressure from the Unionists not to give in to the Sinn Fein. The Unionists claim that already too many concessions have been made to the Sinn Fein at their cost.

Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimble.-PETER MORRISON/AP

The simmering tension over the issue came to a head on July 1 when Trimble resigned as head of the power-sharing executive to force the IRA to start disarming. Trimble's resignation followed increasing pressure on him from hardliners in his party who threatened to challenge his leadership if he did not take a tough stand. They argued that because of his "soft" approach the party was losing ground and pointed to the results of the general and local elections held in June in which the hawkish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which is opposed to the Good Friday Agreement, made significant gains at the expense of the UUP. Trimble's party lost a number of seats to the DUP in what was seen as a vote of no-confidence on his policies, especially his handling of the decommissioning issue.

A similar shift away from moderate politics was reflected in the performance of Republican and Nationalist parties. The Sinn Fein with its hard line on decommissioning outperformed the more moderate SDLP and thus strengthened its resolve to persist with its uncompromising position. The Sinn Fein's good performance came at a time when the threat to its supremacy from the more extremist Republican groups such as the Real IRA looked real. In a sense, the election result sealed the fate of moderation and forced both sides to adopt more threatening postures. This was reflected in the comments made by the different players after the Weston Park summit. Trimble said: "We have tried very hard in the course of this week to bring it home to the republican movement that it is their inescapable duty to fulfil the promises they made. It is also their duty to put weapons beyond use in their terms of the agreement." His party colleague and hardliner Jeffrey Donaldson said: "We are not prepared to consider anything until there is actual decommissioning. That is our bottom line." On the other hand, the Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness, who was the party's chief negotiator at the summit meeting, accused the government of failing to address the Republicans' concerns on policing and demilitarisation.

Despite such seemingly irreconcilable positions after a series of talks in recent weeks, apart from the two "summits", the British government did not give up. It decided to prepare a package of proposals in consultation with the Irish government and put it before the political parties on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. The package, offering a number of concessions to Republicans on policing and security in the hope of persuading them to relent on the decommissioning issue, was presented to the two sides on August 1 with a five-day deadline to give their responses. However, with decommissioning remaining the sticking point, no agreement has been possible so far despite an extension of the deadline.

Despite its widely perceived pro-Republican tilt, the Sinn Fein believes that the British government's peace package falls short of its demand for radical police reforms and scaling down of the British security apparatus in Northern Ireland. It claims that it remains committed to decommissioning but would not act under the pressure of deadlines and ultimatums. On the other hand, the Unionists resent what they see as attempts to "appease" the Republicans. They also believe that the kind of sweeping police restructuring and security changes that the Republicans demand are not justified by the situation on the ground, with the police warning of a "murderous" new phase of terrorist campaign by the Real IRA.

The Unionists' view is supported by independent observers who warn that any compromise on security is fraught with risks. The Times, in an editorial, said: "To secure peace compromises are always necessary. But after Ealing (the bomb blast), Ministers must remember that, when confronted by an implacable foe, it can be deadly to allow security to be compromised too far." Until the bomb blast, there was a great deal of optimism that behind-the-scenes efforts by London and Dublin in recent weeks were about to deliver peace. But the explosion changed the situation dramatically. The publicly-stated resolve of both sides to go ahead with the peace process in order to "shame" the extremists has not been matched by their actions.

Under the provincial Constitution, the political vacuum created by Trimble's resignation must be filled by August 12 (when the six-week deadline from the date of his resignation ends) and if the deadlock continues - as it seems likely - there are only two options: to suspend the Assembly or call elections. (By August 9, the Assembly looked headed for a suspension to buy more time for negotiations.) Meanwhile, there are fears that a prolonged period of political uncertainty would help extremists consolidate themselves. Already there has been a considerable rise in violence since the latest crisis erupted and the writing on the wall does not bode too well for the future. Britain's Northern Ireland Secretary John Reid has warned that only the anti-peace elements stand to benefit from a political vacuum. "We have to show politics works," he said, arguing that political and economic stability arising out of peace is the best antidote to violent extremism.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Irish counterpart Bertie Ahern.-JONATHAN EVANS/AP

There is a growing view that even if a patchy compromise is achieved now in order to avert a collapse of the political institutions set up under the Good Friday Agreement, it might not last. A fresh look at the Good Friday Agreement, it is argued, would not be a bad thing in the light of the experience of the last three years. The immediate objective of the accord was to end hostilities and a lot was left for the two sides to improvise upon as they learned to work together in a power-sharing executive. That "improvisation" has not worked is clear, and given the continuing lack of mutual trust it is doubtful whether it is going to work. Although Trimble might have his own reasons to call for a review, even detached observers believe that a minor "surgery" is better than subjecting the agreement to repeated bouts of near breakdown.

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