The Irish Republican Army has broken the logjam in the Northern Irish peace process. Last weekend, the group offered to put its vast stockpiles of weapons “completely and verifiably beyond use.” That gesture will allow the suspended power-sharing agreement in the province to go forward. The implicit pledge to pursue change by the ballot, rather than the bullet, holds out promise of ending the bloody civil war that has ravaged Northern Ireland for decades.
Disarmament has always been the chief obstacle to peace in Northern Ireland. The vast arsenals held by paramilitaries on both sides of the sectarian divide are a direct threat to the rule of law in the province. For Catholics, and the IRA in particular, weapons were equalizers in the struggle against a political system tilted against them. For militants, disarmament was the equivalent of surrender, an act that was especially unthinkable since they had never been defeated.
Yet, Northern Ireland’s Protestants — at least those willing to negotiate — had made the handing over of weapons a precondition for sharing power. Mr. George Mitchell, the former U.S. senator turned mediator, brokered a compromise between the two sides that implemented a step-by-step process of reciprocal concessions to win confidence and work toward the eventual decommissioning of weapons. Mr. David Trimble, leader of the Protestant Ulster Unionist Party, agreed, while demanding gestures from the IRA that would cover his flank.
Those moves were not forthcoming. The 1988 Good Friday accord merely called for disarmament by May 22 of this year, without specifying more. The IRA gambled that the Protestants, fearful of international opinion and unwilling to give up power, would not pull out of the power-sharing agreement once it was in place. The IRA was wrong.
The Protestants balked. Rather than see the entire peace process break down, the British government suspended the power-sharing agreement. Worse, international opinion was almost unanimous in blaming the IRA for the breakdown.
Negotiations with the British and Irish governments yielded last weekend’s surprise announcement. The IRA says it is now willing to identify the locations of its secret stockpiles and have them periodically inspected by two independent outsiders. They are Mr. Cyril Ramaphosa, former chairman of the African National Congress, and Mr. Martti Ahtisaari, the recently retired president of Finland. The two men are expected in England next week to discuss their duties.
The offer has been rightly hailed worldwide as a breakthrough. Britain responded by saying that it would introduce legislation to revive the power-sharing institutions by May 22 and move the disarmament deadline to June 2001.
Now the burden shifts to the Protestants. Mr. Trimble called the proposal “very positive” and said it “broke new ground.” Mr. Trimble, who also serves as first minister in the new government, must sell the agreement to his party’s rank and file at a meeting May 20 at which they will vote on resuming the peace process. Much depends on the specifics of the IRA proposal — which Mr. Trimble has noted — but one of his key deputies has voiced support for the statement.
Nothing is free in Northern Ireland. The question hanging over the IRA announcement is: What has the British government given in return? Reportedly, Britain has promised to further reduce its troops in Northern Ireland by next year. Some will claim that the move creates a rough equivalence between the British presence and the IRA weapons. It is a spurious link. As confidence builds between the former adversaries, there will be less need for British troops. That is part of a peace deal. To make the drawdown an obstacle to peace is Orwellian.
The Protestants are also demanding that the British government drop some of its planned reforms for the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the province’s overwhelmingly Protestant police force. They are angered by plans to change the name and the insignia, calling them an insult to the memory of the more than 300 officers who died in 30 years of sectarian violence. The British government has said that it will not back down.
Nor should it. Peace in Northern Ireland depends on perceptions. There is a perception — well-earned — that the police force has not been neutral. It must be. Similarly, the IRA must shed its reputation for hair-splitting and obstinacy and become a partner in the peace talks. Declaring and observing the ceasefire was a critical first step, but the peace process has moved on. Concessions must be traded if confidence is to be built. With the IRA proposal, the process can now resume.
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