The Northern Ireland peace process is in danger of breaking down. The Irish Republican Army’s fierce resistance to surrendering any of its weapons has forced Protestant politicians to question the group’s commitment to peace. In the absence of genuine good will between the parties to the conflict, gestures take on exaggerated importance. It is the IRA’s turn to make a symbolic move to break the deadlock and save the peace.
The 1998 Good Friday peace agreement sets a May deadline for paramilitary groups to hand in the weapons they used during their bloody civil war. Protestant politicians demanded that the IRA begin “decommissioning” weapons by February if they were to continue sharing power with Catholics in a government for the province. Under the peace accord, Gen. John de Chastelain of Canada is monitoring the disarming process. His report, delivered at the end of last month, confirmed that he had had contact with the IRA, but that the group had turned over none of its weapons. The province’s first minister, Mr. David Trimble, a Unionist and a Protestant, threatened to resign if that state of affairs continued. Fearing a complete breakdown of the peace process, Britain this week passed legislation that would suspend self-government and return the province to British rule.
The logic behind each of the positions is simple. The Unionists have backed away from their previous positions. They originally demanded complete disarmament by the IRA before they would form a government. Having abandoned that stance, and having seen Catholics benefit from the peace accord — the IRA has been given seats in the new government and IRA prisoners have been released from jail — they want to see a genuine commitment to peace.
The IRA counters that it called a ceasefire in 1997, and has honored that pledge. It has accepted the ultimate goal of disarmament, and the Good Friday accord does not call for decommissioning until mid-May. Moreover, IRA spokesmen have pointedly stated that the organization itself did not sign the Good Friday accord and never at any time made a commitment to disarm. And prominent Sinn Fein members have speculated that even if the group decides to give up its weapons, it is unlikely to hand them over since such a move is anathema to an organization that has never been defeated.
Stuck between these two incompatible positions, the British government sees suspension of the agreement as the least bad option. Suspension is better than outright collapse. Negotiations can continue and a compromise solution might be reached.
Technically, the IRA is correct. The group never signed the peace accord — an argument that renders its insistence that decommissioning is not required until May somewhat disingenuous. And the ceasefire is far more important than handing over arms.
But legal technicalities are not the issue: Trust is. As British Secretary for Northern Ireland Peter Mandelson explained this week during the debate in Parliament, the focal point is “uncertainty about whether decommissioning will ever happen. If the war is over, why do arms need to be retained?” He is right.
The end of the civil war calls for a break with the traditions of the last 30 years. Northern Ireland needs a civil, civic culture and it can only be built upon a respect for law and the willingness to abandon the pursuit of private justice. There is no place for private armies in the new Northern Ireland.
Mr. Gerry Adams, the leader of the Catholic party Sinn Fein, who is presumed to speak for the IRA, has threatened to walk away from the peace process. He says pressuring the IRA to hand over arms is sure to backfire and would only strengthen the ” hard men” opposed to any peace. He may be correct, but making concessions has not had an effect, either.
Perceptions are tricky. The IRA does not wish to be seen as being forced to give in to Protestant demands. But from another perspective, the IRA is perceived as being less than committed to peace. Surrendering some weapons would be only a gesture: The weapons themselves can be easily replaced. But the symbolism of the move is what matters. The handover would also provide an even sharper contrast to the die-hard rejectionists, such as Continuity IRA, who earlier this week renewed their bombing campaign.
The hard men lurk in the background of the peace process, but they cannot be allowed to hold it hostage. Northern Ireland’s Catholics, and the IRA itself, have benefited greatly from the Good Friday agreement. It is now their turn to quiet the doubts and confirm their commitment to the peace.
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