A seismic shift in Northern Ireland

Print edition : November 10, 2001

Forced by events, the Irish Republican Army takes the first step towards disarming by destroying a part of its weapons and thus saves the peace process from collapsing.

THERE had been so many false dawns in the past that when it really seemed that the Irish Republican Army (IRA) had finally decided to disarm, the first reaction was one of deep scepticism. The significance of the event and the element of pleasant surprise it contained was reflected in Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) chief David Trimble's comment after it was officially confirmed that the IRA had indeed taken the first step towards decommissioning by destroying a "quantity" of its weapons. He said: "This is the day we were told would never happen, and it has."

British Prime Minister Tony Blair hailed it as a "very significant milestone" and his Irish counterpart Bertie Ahern, whose role in peace-making has been nearly as important as Blair's, said the occasion was nothing short of "historic". The IRA itself called it an "unprecedented" move to save the peace process in Northern Ireland, and Gerry Adams, leader of its political wing Sinn Fein, said it was a "huge moment" in the history of the Republican movement. "Let us not fritter it away," he said. The day was October 23 and it was late in the evening (barely 24 hours after Adams' widely publicised appeal for decommissioning) when the IRA put out a statement signed by the famously mythical "P.O. Neill" announcing that it had implemented its promise to start decommissioning. "Our motivation is clear. This unprecedented move is to save the peace process and to persuade others of our genuine intentions," it declared. Two hours later, General John de Chastelain, head of the independent international arms inspectors, confirmed this, saying: "We have now witnessed an event - which we regard as significant - in which the IRA has put a quantity of weapons beyond use. The material in question includes arms, ammunition and explosives."

British soldiers dismantle an Army observation post in South Armagh, Northern Ireland, after it was confirmed that the Irish Republican Army has taken the first step towards decommissioning weapons.-PAUL FAITH/POOL/AP

There have been predictably hostile reaction from the usual sceptics - hardline Republicans and Unionists alike, with the former accusing the IRA of a "sellout" and the latter dismissing the move as a "fudge" aimed at extracting more political concessions from the British government which, indeed, was quick to scale down its security presence in Republican strongholds, as demanded by Sinn Fein. Analysts are certain that the dissident Republicans and Loyalists would try and destabilise the peace process, and the coming weeks will be fraught with provocations. The moderate Unionists, represented by Trimble's UUP, would need to "adopt the right tone", as The Times put it, to make sure that the opportunity presented by decommissioning is not squandered. A strong Unionist support would strengthen the moderate republicans in dealing with their hawks.

Both from the IRA's point of view and from the peace perspective, it is a huge step forward - a seismic shift in the IRA's uncompromising position until recently. "This is by far the greatest step forward for the peace process since the conclusion of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998," The Independent said, echoing a unanimous view across the United Kingdom. The move assumed greater significance as it came at a time when the peace process was on the brink of collapse and the British government was considering the suspension of the Northern Ireland Assembly and the power-sharing executive, which had been crippled following the Unionists' withdrawal from it to force decommissioning. They have now returned to the government with Trimble back as the First Minister.

Questions have been raised about the quantity of arms that has been decommissioned and how and when further decommissioning will take place, and indeed about the time-frame for the process to be completed. Even the Prime Minister and the Northern Ireland Secretary are not privy to details. Gen. de Chastelain has declined to go beyond his bland statement, in which he confirmed the decommissioning on the plea that it would not assist the process; and Adams shrugged off questions on the issue suggesting that details are immaterial. "People saw a television stunt by the LVF (Loyalist Volunteer Force) and then they went out and killed a journalist," he commented acidly, stressing that the intent was more important - a point echoed by the Royal Ulster Constabulary's Chief Constable Ronnie Flanagan.

Flanagan, who has handled some of the worst phases of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland, said: "Anyone who knows the history of violent Irish republicanism knows that the decision to take this step is much more important and significant than the amount of material actually affected." He said his own perception was that by deciding to disarm, the IRA had effectively declared that the "war" was over. "It is always possible for people to renew the will (to wage violence). But there does not appear to be a will at present," he said.

So, how did this come about? The conventional wisdom is that it was prompted by the anti-terrorism backlash after the September 11 events in the United States and the consequent loss of patronage that the IRA enjoyed among the rich Irish Americans, who had been a major source of funding. After September 11, it seems, they made it clear that they did not want to be seen supporting an allegedly terrorist organisation. There was also pressure from the U.S. government, particularly after three suspected IRA men were arrested in Colombia on the charge of hobnobbing with a Marxist guerilla group.

According to this view, there would have been no decommissioning had the IRA not begun to feel like an untouchable after the terror attacks in New York and Washington. Another, minority, view is that the IRA had taken a principled decision way back in August, and September 11 simply accelerated the process. "...The very weapons-destruction scheme they have just implemented was agreed with the decommissioning overseer John de Chastelain in early August... (and) that decision, passed by five votes to two on the seven person (IRA's army) council was the turning point," said Jonathan Freedland, a Guardian commentator on Northern Ireland affairs.

THE IRA did make a highly publicised announcement in August that it had agreed with Gen. de Chastelain on a decommissioning scheme, but the Unionists dismissed it insisting that "mere words" would not do. They wanted the destruction of weapons to start before they could agree to continue with the peace process. After a bitter war of words, the IRA withdrew its "offer" in a huff, and the rest is history. Whatever may have driven the IRA leadership to take the plunge finally, the sheer symbolic significance of the move remains undiminished. In one stroke, the IRA has put behind it 30 years of its violent history and confounded those who thought decommissioning would never happen considering that the very notion of laying down arms had been abhorrent to the IRA. It was seen as a "surrender", particularly if done under pressure as, ironically, it has done.

The move brings to an end the more immediate political crisis that began in July when Trimble, acting under pressure from the hawks in his party, resigned as First Minister in protest against the lack of progress on decommissioning. This led to a temporary suspension of the Assembly twice while London and Dublin tried to resolve the issue by offering a series of concessions to the IRA in return for disarmament. But the crisis continued to deepen, with the Unionists withdrawing from the ruling coalition altogether saying they were not willing to share power with people who continued to hang on to their weapons. In fact, until the surprise announcement of October 23, few people could have anticipated that it would turn out right in the end. But given the volatile politics of Northern Ireland, nobody can be too sure about the future.

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