Republican News · Thursday 16 March 2000

[An Phoblacht]

Making Politics Work


Six years ago, few people had heard the word decommission. Fewer still understood its meaning. Now it invades every political comment and dominates the political agenda. The irony is that decommissioning, which was not an issue while war raged around us, has come to dog a process with the potential to resolve decades of conflict. The issue now threatens to undermine entirely the Good Friday Agreement, which, uniquely, has the support of both unionism and nationalism, an agreement that was endorsed by the vast majority of the Irish people.

Guns, armies and all that goes with them, are the consequences of conflict
It is important, therefore, to recall the origins of the decommissioning issue with which there is such an apparent political obsession.

Prior to the first IRA cessation in 1994, we were repeatedly told that, if the IRA would only end its campaign, everything was then possible - repression would end, emergency legislation would be repealed, injustice and inequality would be tackled.

Using the arms issue as a tactical device, for whatever reason, actually makes it less likely to be resolved, as recent events have so graphically demonstrated
The immediate consequence, the British government told us privately and publicly, directly and indirectly, would be political negotiations to address and deal with the issues which had historically led to conflict.

This assurance was important to Sinn Féin's attempts, with others in nationalist Ireland and the US, to construct a viable conflict resolution process.

When we eventually brought about the political conditions in which the IRA called its first cessation, the unionist response was negative and begrudging. The unionist leader, James Molyneaux, publicly warned of the ``destabilising'' effect that the IRA cessation would have.

However it was the British government response that proved more damaging, both in the short and the long term. For both ideological reasons and because of his dependence on UUP and Tory right-wing votes at Westminster, the then Tory government under John Major was unwilling to begin the political negotiations which should have followed the IRA cessation.

Instead, John Major put up a series of new conditions which would have to be met before Sinn Féin could be involved in political negotiations. None of these conditions had been mooted prior to the cessation. The most damaging of these was the demand for IRA decommissioning, the so-called Washington Three test. This was articulated by Patrick Mayhew during a visit to Washington, but had been drafted in Downing Street by Major's senior political and military advisors.

Washington Three was precisely and deliberately designed to keep Sinn Féin out of negotiations and was, therefore, developed and presented in such a way that Sinn Féin could not meet the demands made of us. It was a test designed to be failed.

d there we have the origins of the present difficulties.

The manner in which the issue of arms has been addressed throughout the development of the peace process has been moulded by the Major government's approach to decommissioning, an approach which was designed to block progress rather than a serious attempt to deal with the issue. This tactical and, consequently, counter-productive approach has been enthusiastically adopted by the UUP in its attempts to prevent or minimise the changes which the Good Friday Agreement promised. Indeed, one of the objectives of such an approach is the attempt to ensure that the matter is not resolved.

If we genuinely want to address the issue of arms, we need to develop a viable and acceptable way of doing so. Using the issue as a tactical device, for whatever reason, actually makes it less likely to be resolved, as recent events have so graphically demonstrated.

The logic of all of this is that we need to find a new, imaginative and, most importantly, effective approach to dealing with the issue of arms and the other consequences of decades of conflict.

In this context it is important that we set out with clarity, the present position:

  • Decommissioning was no part of the cessations.

  • None of the armed groups are committed to decommissioning.

  • Decommissioning is not a pre- or post-condition in the Good Friday Agreement.

  • No political party is responsible for decommissioning and therefore no political party can be in default if it does not happen.

  • The weapons of the armed groups are silent.

  • Silenced weapons are not a threat.

  • Decommissioning, according to the British state forces, is not a security issue.

  • Decommissioning will only take place on a voluntary basis - it cannot be imposed.

  • There will obviously be no progress in dealing with the arms issue in the absence of political progress.

  • 22 May is a date that the pro-agreement parties agreed to work to.

  • 22 May is not a deadline.

  • 22 May is not binding on any of the armed groups, as they did not sign up to it.

  • There is now little possibility of decommissioning by any armed group by 22 May and in all probability no possibility.

Given these realities and the failure to implement the Good Friday Agreement across a whole range of issues, it is obvious that the arms issue will not be resolved by the target date set in the agreement, nor will it be achieved in a way prescribed by either the British government or the UUP. Indeed the UUP have used any influence they have, not to encourage progress but to prevent it.

It is also now unlikely to be achieved through the de Chastelain mechanism, given the British government's rejection of the IICD judgement on the issue. This has greatly undermined the commission's role and its ability to fulfil its remit.

It is clear that the arms issue will only be dealt with in the context of the full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement and, critically, the institutions which are its cornerstone.

In other words, guns, armies and all that goes with them, are the consequences of conflict. The Good Friday Agreement presents a template for politics to work - a defined and detailed framework to address both the causes and the consequences of the conflict. It hasn't yet become a reality. But by making politics work we can begin to deal effectively with the arms issue. And by removing the causes of conflict we can finally resolve the arms issue.

We can take all of the guns out of Irish politics - but only if this is dealt with as an objective, and as the collective responsibility, of all the parties (including the two governments) involved in the process of conflict resolution.

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