Pro-accord parties need to clarify their goals in new order


There is a Protestant church just a stone's throw from Stormont with a poster on its notice-board: Let them Rust in Peace. It is signs such as these that are indicative of the shift in the political landscape of Northern Ireland despite the professional pessimism of anti-agreement politicians in the past five years.

In essence the Belfast Agreement provided a fresh philosophical and practical framework for a new political order. It recognised that the divided nature of Northern society was not merely a figment of fringe republican imagination.

We accept that unionists are experiencing very real problems in bringing a sufficient number of their constituency to accept the uncomfortable demands of political change. We also recognise that Sinn Fein faces no less difficult problems in moving its constituency from militancy to a progressive strategy of peaceful political change.

During the talks process we said that there must be a willingness to address people's fear of change and assist in the leadership and management of change, rather than to exploit fears for political ends.

This need to manage people's expectations about change is a challenge for Sinn Fein, but has been a particular problem in the Ulster Unionist Party.

In contrast to management, the latter has relied on the exaggeration of republican "gains" as both a bargaining counter with the British and Irish governments, and a means of consolidating its own constituency. This tactic has, in effect, returned to haunt David Trimble, although he has exploited this vulnerability to elicit the protection of the British government.

The challenge is to design a context for movement that goes beyond the straitjacket of devolution-for-decommissioning. However, any such context should build on the provisions of the Belfast Agreement rather than seeking to un-pick them.

It has always been our view that there is no linkage in the terms of the agreement between prior, or time-tabled, decommissioning and the establishment of an Executive. We do, nevertheless, accept the critical importance of the provisions in the decommissioning section of the agreement, and we hold strongly to the requirement that all parties must use their best efforts to bring about decommissioning.

For the Women's Coalition, that requirement has entailed a scrutiny of the circumstances that will allow decommissioning to be achieved in practice. It is our analysis that the creation of such circumstances is not helped by unilateral deadlines, by using political position to prevent the implementation of other aspects of the agreement, or by indulgence in the politics of blame and marginalisation.

The coalition has also argued that an over-reliance on exclusive bilateral and trilateral negotiation between the two governments and the big three pro-agreement parties can be counterproductive. It has undermined the collective sense of ownership of current problems and the implementation process. We believe that we need to reframe the problem if we are to achieve the implementation of the agreement.

A more useful context would be to posit that the referendums of 1998 created a new political dispensation for both unionism and republicanism, as well as the two governments. It would be helpful for the IRA army council to recognise that the 1998 referendums marked a point of transformation of their struggle for a united and independent Ireland.

It must be accepted that this was the first occasion when all the electorate of the island voted together since 1918. It is clear that there is now a popular mandate for peaceful change, even if the nature of that change is still an issue for political debate and struggle.

Actions based on expressions of pique during periods of political crisis do not move the situation forward. If the IRA sees itself in conflict with the British military presence in Ireland, then it should proactively move to build confidence in the agreement by responding positively to the limited level of demilitarisation to date, and to any future demilitarisation.

The IRA itself, or else through the medium of Sinn Fein, also owes the unionists clarity about what it views as the context for effective inclusive decommissioning and, indeed, about the meaning of its sometimes less than clear public statements. Equally, however, the Women's Coalition does not see decommissioning being achieved as a direct response to David Trimble's bungee-jump last November. The Executive should not be the gift of any one party to all the others.

The reality was that the Secretary of State very skilfully walked the Ulster Unionists through their responsibility to establish an Executive. To make matters worse no implementation process was put in place to underpin the misunderstood agreement reached by a small number of political leaders through the Mitchell review.

What is now required is a determined effort on behalf of all the pro-agreement parties collectively to agree the context for the implementation of the agreement. This will entail each of the parties clarifying their own objectives in implementing it.

Such a clarification would constitute a "Record of Understanding" that would specifically address the causes of conflict and the shared need for political change rather than simply settling on the need to end violence and achieve stability.

There is also a need to create a sustained implementation mechanism that will encompass both continuing confidence-building measures and the practical and strategic implementation of the agreement as a whole.

Finally, we believe that the strength of civic society in Northern Ireland should be mobilised yet again in support of the agreement. The pro-agreement project should be shared among parties, and people.

There has been some recent discussion about how civic society might intervene in the political process. Establishing the Civic Forum, or, indeed, the all-island consultative forum envisaged in the agreement could facilitate this.

While the method of implementing the agreement requires certainty and clarity, the fact that people want it implemented is absolutely clear.

Monica McWilliams sits in the suspended Northern Ireland Assembly on behalf of the Women's Coalition