Twisted ethics threaten process
BY FERN LANE
Consider this. The last line of the 1997 Firearms Act, which was brought into force by the newly-elected Labour government in Britain in response to the killings at Dunblane, states that ``This law does not apply to Northern Ireland''.
According to the Northern Ireland Office, this was because of the ``special circumstances'' of the ``province''. The then Secretary of State, Mo Mowlam, apparently spent a year or so ``looking into ways of applying the firearms law to Northern Ireland'', but the aforementioned ``special circumstances'' proved too difficult to overcome, one of the most difficult being the ``need for members of the RUC to carry personal protection weapons''. What the NIO overlooked, however, is that of the 87,000 licences for 139,885 weapons currently in issue, not one single licence is for a member of the RUC, for the simple reason that police officers in the Six Counties do not need a licence to own or carry a weapon, any weapon, even when off duty.
It is the case that only some 9,000 of the total of around 155,000 legally held guns are for `personal protection' and those, like the rest, are overwhelmingly in the hands of the unionist population
It is the case that only some 9,000 of the total of around 155,000 legally held guns are for `personal protection' and those, like the rest, are overwhelmingly in the hands of the unionist population. David Trimble fought ferociously with the Labour government for the right of his friends to retain their weapons, and as a consequence was assured by Tony Blair that the Act would not be applied to the Six Counties, now or at any time.
To wilfully deny Sinn Féin's mandate and bring down the Assembly by disgraceful parliamentary machination may in some perverted way be legal, but it is not moral
But this habit of taking refuge under the protective arm of British law - most of it unjust and much of it in contravention of human rights standards - is where the UUP will finally begin to come unstuck. Having comprehensively lost the legal arguments on IRA decommissioning, the British government, the UUP and the media have now had to resort to the imaginary ``moral'' case for the IRA to unilaterally lay down its own arms, at the behest of Mr Trimble and outside the scope of the Good Friday Agreement.
Perhaps it is too much to hope for that the issue of legally-held weapons, and the unionist obsession with holding on to them, would be addressed by either the British government or its obedient media as part of the vast acreage of print devoted to decommissioning over the last fortnight. ``Betrayal'' said Peter Mandelson to republicans last week because they refused to dance to David Trimble's tune. ``Betrayal'' shouted the headlines and increasingly pompous editorials.
Those attempting to argue that Sinn Féin have adhered precisely to the requirements of the Good Friday Agreement were silenced, censored and marginalised as the goal posts moved, again. In the face of an artificially created crisis, the terms of the debate were changed; the matter stopped being a legal one and became an entirely spurious `moral' one. Suddenly, those for whom historically the letter of the law was paramount - because the law was contrived to facilitate their corruption, and who used the law as a weapon of war - suddenly sought to brush away the law and offer their own highly subjective and legally unsustainable interpretation of the Good Friday Agreement.
A few days later, in a lecture at Liverpool University, Tony Blair with no doubt unintentional irony, urged the republican movement to abandon their supposed obsession with ``old symbolism'' and in the same breath, paradoxically, demanded a ``symbolic'' gesture from the IRA on arms. A symbolic surrender; a little carefully-scripted play which would say to the world that all though the past 30 years republicans were criminals, and that unionists and the British state were blameless, righteous - and moral.
``For you'' the BBC's Dennis Murray gently inquired of David Trimble, head inclined sympathetically, ``decommissioning is a supremely moral issue, isn't it?'' David, one-time member of the neo-fascist Vanguard, enthusiastic participant in one of the most corrupt and discredited political administrations in Europe, defender of a police force with the worst human rights record in western Europe, agreed that indeed it is, basking in the portrayal of both he and his party as the standard-bearers of this newly-discovered political morality.
But if, for a moment, we indulge the British/Unionist/media troika and agree to join this dubious debate on morality, then how can it be moral that political representation for the people of the Six Counties has, legally, become a gift which Trimble and Mandelson can bestow and then remove at will. The legislation which has been passed this week permits the Secretary of State to rule by decree - he can suspend the Assembly now, tomorrow, next week or whenever he wants to, at any time in the future. Those with a vote count for nothing.
Further, how is it that unionists have been allowed to define the moral parameters of this debate? After all, it was the immorality of British Unionist rule, which included most of the present Unionist leadership, that brought us to armed struggle and the horrors which flowed from it. This alone should exclude them from the moral high ground. And it is their political immorality which is behind their determination to disenfranchise those who voted for genuinely democratic new institutions. The British state, in its unionist guise, has a long and ignominious history of denying the nationalist community its electoral rights whilst issuing pious sermons on the values of democracy, and it is coming perilously close to repeating the mistakes of the past. Morally, it should not be the case that Sinn Féin is in the Assembly under the sufferance of David Trimble and his cohorts and at the legislative whim of the Secretary of State, but the British government have ensured that it is. Morally, it should be that Sinn Féin is there by absolute right of its electoral mandate, but the British government have ensured that it is not. To wilfully deny this mandate and bring down the Assembly by disgraceful parliamentary machination may in some perverted way be legal, but it is not moral.