Breakthrough in Northern Ireland?
After all I''ve written on the situation in Northern Ireland over the
years, primarily in my "Week in Review" column, it only
seemed right to use this space this week to highlight the huge
potential breakthrough in the peace process there. Were it not
for our current war on terrorism, this may have been the lead
story the past few days, but, unfortunately, it is being buried by
the admittedly more depressing, and important, news in other
parts of the world, including our own. For once, though, we do
have something to be optimistic about. Here''s a quick review.
In 1998 what became known as the Good Friday power-sharing
agreement between the Protestants and Catholics in the British
province of Northern Ireland was reached, ending, it was hoped,
decades of sectarian violence which had claimed about 3,600
But over the past six months, in particular, the Good Friday
accord was hanging by a thread, and it was just last week that the
latest roadblock was put up, that being when the five
"Unionists," or pro-British members of the provincial
government announced their resignations because the Irish
Republican Army (IRA) had refused to begin disarming,
something the IRA has steadfastly refused to do until various
demands were met, including reform of the British police force
and demilitarization in Northern Ireland.
It looked as though the British government was going to have to
force new elections or suspend the experiment in home rule, but
then Sinn Fein (the political wing of the IRA) leader Gerry
Adams startled everyone with an announcement on Monday that
he was urging the IRA to begin to disarm. The next day,
Tuesday, the IRA did so. Following are the statements of both
Gerry Adams and the IRA.
Gerry Adams [Excerpts]:
The Sinn Fein leadership has been seeking to create a context in
which all of the key players in this crisis can share in the effort to
end it, and share in the effort to build trust and confidence.
If all the pro-agreement parties genuinely have a vision of a
peaceful future built on justice, equality and respect for our
diversity, then we must look to each other to find ways of
realizing that vision.
Republicans and nationalists want to be convinced that unionism
is facing up to its responsibilities.
Most fair-minded people on this island want to believe that a
British government is prepared to usher in a new dispensation
based on equality.
But Sinn Fein is not nanve. Our strategy is determined by
objective realities. It is guided among other things by the fact
that the democratic rights and entitlements of nationalists and
republicans cannot be conditional. These rights are universal
rights. They affect all citizens.
In the Good Friday agreement, matters such as policing, the
political institutions, demilitarization, human rights, the justice
system and the equality agenda are stand-alone issues. These are
issues to be resolved in their own right.
We have put this to all those we have been in negotiation with.
It is clear to the Sinn Fein leadership that the issue of the IRA
has been used as an excuse to undermine the peace process as
well as the Good Friday agreement.
But at the same time, I do not underestimate the emotiveness and
confusions which arise at different phases in struggle, and in
particular the effects of media and propaganda spins. This is
particularly so on the weapons issue.
Many republicans are angry at the unrelenting focus on silent
IRA weapons. This is in marked contrast to the attitude to
loyalist weapons and bombs in daily use, and the remilitarization
by the British army of republican heartlands in the north.
The issue of arms must be resolved. But not just IRA weapons -
British weapons as well.
This is a necessary part of any conflict resolution process.
Martin McGuinness (Adams''s right-hand man) and I have also
held discussions with the IRA and we have put to the IRA
leadership the view that if it could make a groundbreaking move
on the arms issue that this could save the peace process from
collapse and transform the situation.
However, I do not underestimate the difficulties this involves for
the army. Genuine republicans will have concerns about such a
move. It is to them that I address this section of my remarks.
The nay-sayers, the armchair generals and begrudgers, and the
enemies of Irish republicanism and of the peace process, will
present a positive IRA move in disparaging terms. That is only
to be expected.
Others will say that the IRA has acted under pressure. But
everyone else knows that the IRA is not an organization that
bows to pressure or which moves on British or unionist terms.
IRA volunteers have a view of themselves and a vision of the
Ireland they want to be part of. This is what will shape their
attitude to this issue.
Republicans in Ireland and elsewhere will have to strategically
think this issue through.
We have all been part of something very powerful. Each of us
has struggled in difficult and hard times.
We are now in a good but challenging period for Irish
republicanism. We have made significant advances this year.
There is a continued need for all of us to stay connected and to
keep fulfilling our roles. Our focus is on building the peace.
Every one of us has a role in that daunting task. We have to
ensure that we have done our utmost to prevent the situation
from slipping back into conflict.
[Separately, while Adams was giving his speech in Northern
Ireland, Martin McGuinness, reformed terrorist, was making
similar remarks in New York. Of course Irish support in the U.S.
has been vital to the success (if you can call it that) of the IRA.
Today, though, that support has been slipping and both Adams
and McGuinness would have to acknowledge that two events
have speeded up their thinking on the peace process and
disarmament. First, the arrest of three IRA members in
Colombia in August who were meeting leftist rebels, an act
which infuriated IRA supporters, particularly in the U.S.,
because it de-legitimized both Sinn Fein and the IRA, and,
second, September 11 and the terror attacks on the United States.
Regarding the latter, McGuinness said, "For me, the events of
Sept. 11 in New York and Washington and in Pennsylvania have
given added urgency and incentive to those of us in Northern
Ireland who want to bring our peace process to a conclusion."]
On Tuesday, the IRA responded with the following statement:
The IRA is committed to our republican objectives and to the
establishment of a united Ireland based on justice, equality and
In August 1994, against a background of lengthy and intensive
discussions involving the two governments and others, the
leadership of the IRA called a complete cessation of military
operations in order to create the dynamic for a peace process.
"Decommissioning" was no part of that. There was no
ambiguity about this. Unfortunately there are those within the
British establishment and the leadership of unionism who are
fundamentally opposed to change. At every opportunity they
have used the issue of arms as an excuse to undermine and
It is for this reason that decommissioning was introduced to the
process by the British government. It has been used since to
prevent the changes that a lasting peace requires.
In order to overcome this and to encourage the changes
necessary for a lasting peace, the leadership of Oglaigh na Ireann
(IRA) has taken a number of substantial initiatives.
These include our engagement with the IICD (Independent
International Commission on Decommissioning) and the
inspection of a number of arms dumps by the two international
inspectors, Syril Ramaphosa and Martti Ahtisaari.
No one should doubt the difficulties these initiatives cause for us,
our volunteers and our supporters.
The political process is now on the point of collapse. Such a
collapse would certainly, and eventually, put the overall peace
process in jeopardy.
There is a responsibility upon everyone seriously committed to a
just peace to do our best to avoid this.
Therefore, in order to save the peace process, we have
implemented the scheme agreed with the IICD in August.
Our motivation is clear. This unprecedented move is to save the
peace process and to persuade others of our genuine intentions.
The IRA statement was immediately followed by a statement
from Canadian General John de Chastelain, the lead military
official of the disarmament body, who said he had "witnessed an
event - which we regard as significant - in which the IRA has
put a quantity of arms beyond use...The material in question
includes arms, ammunition, and explosives." No word was
given on where or when the event had taken place. Moderate
Unionist leader David Trimble said he had been told the arms
were not just covered over by a "concrete lid" but had been
disabled in such a way that they "will never be used again."
It was thought that the IRA had about 1,700 guns, as well as
grenades and other explosives. One can assume that they still
maintain a substantial amount, but given that the vast
preponderance of violence in the last five years has been on the
Protestant / Unionist side, the IRA move, sanctioned by a truly
independent monitor (General de Chastelain) is a major step
So now what? The ball is in Trimble''s court to bring the
Unionist side on board, something that won''t be easy, especially
the supporters of the firebrand Reverend Ian Paisley, one of the
truly bad people on the planet.
And you have the issue of the arms stockpile held by the Ulster
Defense Association (UDA) which has been responsible for the
lion''s share of the violence the past few years and has already
said it would not match the IRA disarmament move by handing
in some of its own.
Plus, you also have the issue of the Real IRA, the splinter group
that could easily pick up the shield, so to speak, in defense of the
republican cause. This has always been the fear of Adams and
McGuinness, and, as your editor has noted on occasion, feelings
are so deep-seated that it is hard to get truly optimistic about a
viable peace that protects the rights of Catholics to live in a
Protestant dominated province of Britain.
For his part, British Prime Minister Tony Blair has taken huge
risks of his own over the years and he was almost effusive in his
praise of both Sinn Fein and the IRA on Tuesday, incredibly
striking given the history of the conflict. The IRA, after all, has
been responsible for a wave of terror not only in Northern Ireland
but in Britain itself, including the murder of Lord Mountbatten
and the attempted assassination of former Prime Minister
Margaret Thatcher. And Britain does still have about 13,500
troops in the province, though it is expected that over the coming
year this force may be reduced considerably if progress continues
to be made in the political process.
Both Sinn Fein and the IRA are now looking for payment in
kind, while the militant UDA and Real IRA, working from
opposite sides, could be plotting the destruction of this new era
of good will. In an increasingly dangerous world, however, it
would be nice to point to one "Hott Spott" and be able to attach
the label "former."
The Associated Press
Michael Dobbs / Washington Post
Warren Hoge / New York Times
The Times of London
**Next week we will return to stories concerning the war,
specifically Saudi Arabia and Wahhabism.