SF document lets in a chink of light on arms decommissioning
THE Sinn Fein submission to the International Body on Decommissioning has let in some badly needed light on the murky process of decommissioning IRA arms and getting all party political talks off the ground.
It seemed firmly shut has opened a chink and Mr George Mitchell and his colleagues on the body will this week be trying hard with both the British government and Sinn Fein to push it wider. After the regular blasts from the IRA against the "ludicrous demands" by the British for "a surrender of IRA weapons either, through the front or the back doors", it is a relief to have confirmed that behind the rhetoric the political minds of Sinn Fein have been seriously engaged in finding a way around the "ludicrous demands".
The International Body was set up precisely to find a way around the British demands on decommissioning that are unacceptable to Sinn Fein/IRA. Sinn Fein has used, the opportunity of its meeting with the body last month to set out its views on decommissioning and, specifically, how it responds to British proposals which up to now have not been made public.
The kernel of the Sinn Fein document takes up only six of its 29 pages. The rest is the Sinn Fein version of the origins and development of the peace process and how it has time and again run into British intransigence on the decommissioning issue.
The Sinn Fein arguments are forcefully set out with appropriate references. It is a carefully crafted document for the record, with the title Building a Permanent Peace. The glossy cover has a striking picture of RUC officers taking pleasure in throttling a demonstrator proclaiming "you are now entering Free Derry".
When the document eventually gets down in Chapter IV to "The issue of arms", the point has been, forcibly made that nothing short of a "demilitarisation" of Northern Ireland, including armed police and the British army, is needed.
All of this is not new but it is stated in, a way that will appeal to an international and extremely important is that Sinn Fein is using this document to reveal for the first time the proposals made to it last May by the British government on the "modalities" of decommissioning.
Sinn Fein had at first refused to accept anything on paper from the British and then when it did, it refused to respond to the proposals. Now we know what the response is and it is more positive than could have been expected if the IRA salvoes on decommissioning were to be taken literally.
Britain has put forward three options for getting rid of IRA and loyalist arms: 1, direct transfer to the authorities, North or South, for subsequent destruction; 2, depositing arms for recovery and destruction by the authorities; 3, the destruction of arms by those possessing them.
Rejecting the first two options as equivalent to "surrender", Sinn Fein then states that "as part of a peace settlement, the disposal of arms by those in possession of them is a method which may find acceptance.
This is a decision for those who have the arms".
As to bow this destruction of arms could be verified in a way acceptable to both sides, Sinn Fein says that "the independent third party concept is one which may find acceptance".
At this stage, one is tempted to shout "hurray" or "eureka". The original concept of an International Body was one which would be able to supervise destruction of the weapons. The mandate of the present International Body is limited to an advisory role but it is surely possible for the body to be transformed into an "independent third party" to monitor and verify "destruction of arms by those in possession of them", or to set up a new one.
UNFORTUNATELY, there is still the bugbear of Washington Three", the third condition laid down by the British government. It requires "the actual decommissioning of some arms as a tangible confidence building measure and to signal the start of the process".
It is now clear that the first two are not an obstacle, namely, a "willingness to disarm progressively" and a "common understanding" of how decommissioning would work and be verified.
Sinn Fein insists that Washington Three is not just a "symbolic gesture" as has been argued, but "the start of a surrender process as a precondition to all party talks". The document quotes three times from speeches by the Tanaiste, Mr Spring, to support the Sinn Fein view that any precondition, symbolic or otherwise is a "formula for disaster".
So the ball is back in the British government's court. Will it still insist on Washington Three now that Sinn Fein has stated that "the practicalities of disarmament could conceivably be worked out and agreed in a matter of hours" and has accepted one of the British options?
On paper, the International Body's remit does not include consideration of Washington Three but its job is still to produce an independent report. Sinn Fein, which will meet the body again tomorrow, has shown some flexibility. Will the body be able to build on this to find a formula around the "precondition" obstacle?
Sinn Fein desperately wants to get into full political talks. This emerges clearly through the rhetoric of the submission. But it could have done more to win over unionists.
The document ends with a page on Sinn Fein's origins and its aim of "ending the union with Britain and the establishment of a new, agreed and inclusive Irish society". There is no mention of "consent" of unionists as a precondition, as laid down in the Downing Street Declaration.
The gap on decommissioning may yet be easier to bridge than the obstacles to reaching a political settlement, but it must first be bridged.