Time to find new formula to handle the arms issue


While President Clinton and the Irish and British governments endeavour to inject momentum into the stalled peace process over the coming weeks, there is pessimism in Irish-American circles that any progress can be achieved unless there is a reality check about decommissioning.

The pessimism is based on the situation within the republican movement where the consequences of this global fixation on the issue of decommissioning are now becoming apparent.

Irish-Americans were among the first to sense the opportunity arising from the Hume-Adams dialogue in the early 1990s, and they were able to bring a positive influence by being the first to involve President Clinton in the burgeoning peace process. Irish-America was credited by Sinn Fein with playing a significant role in bringing about the 1994 IRA ceasefire.

Now we are seeking to use our influence again, but this time to warn, Jonah-like, that the entire process is in very deep jeopardy unless some lateral thinking is applied to this issue of decommissioning.

Contrary to the intense media speculation, I cannot stress strongly enough that the IRA is not feeling any pressure whatever to decommission in the current circumstances. Quite the opposite. It is clear that any attempt by it to hand over even token weapons at present would lead to a deep and damaging split from the top down which would have severe adverse consequences for everybody.

Perhaps such a split is the hidden agenda of many of those insisting on arms hand-over now. But we only have to look at the example of Omagh to understand just how counterproductive a situation that would be. Indeed, the last thing we need at the moment is an IRA statement on this issue, which I have no doubt at all would be extremely negative.

There is also a mistaken assumption that the IRA would not go back to war under any circumstances. There are many in high positions within the IRA who believe that the entire peace process exercise has been a counterinsurgency tactic by elements in the British government to defeat them by leading the republican movement towards a political accommodation, then pulling the rug out from under them at the last moment.

Indeed, I believe that the debate within the IRA at present is not about decommissioning at all. It is about whether the entire peace process is, in reality, a counterinsurgency tactic aimed at defeating them by security elements within the British government.

The republican movement appears to see a split screen when they look at the British right now - good faith and genuine effort by Tony Blair and Mo Mowlam, and a continuation of a secret "defeat the IRA at all costs" effort by their security personnel. Talking the language of surrender by the IRA, as a senior British official did recently in Washington to a group of Congressmen, is dangerous kindling indeed.

We should take such concerns about being defeated very seriously indeed. The republican movement is still in transition, feeling its way, very gingerly at times, towards an exclusively political future. The peace process and the Belfast Agreement as written were an honourable way for them to withdraw from the war undefeated as they saw it. Now that is all jeopardised.

The fact is that every word in the agreement was fought over by Sinn Fein, who understood exactly the tough task they were undertaking in selling the deal to the IRA. David Trimble, Bertie Ahern, Tony Blair or anyone else who wanted to make decommissioning a precondition for entering government should have insisted on it being written as such into the Belfast Agreement. It is simply not in there, no matter how many tortuous attempts are made to prove it is.

If there is one fact Irish-Americans learned in dealing with the republican movement in the run-up to the 1994 ceasefire, it was that undertakings and agreements made with them have biblical importance to them and are changed at great peril. Thus, the two-year time period to deal with this issue as provided for in the agreement is sacrosanct in their eyes.

Yet the ink was hardly dry on the Good Friday deal before the drumbeat on arms hand-over began anew. The two governments have a shared responsibility here for allowing the focus to come off the agreement in its entirety and allowing just one section to become a deal-breaker.

As it stands, decommissioning has been untimely ripped from the body of the agreement and made a precondition for the republican movement before almost all other aspects are resolved. It simply cannot be dealt with in that context.

What can be done then? Decommissioning must be reduced to its proper proportion in the peace process as one of a number of issues that need to be resolved. This means it must be placed back in the context of the Belfast Agreement where it belongs. The truth is that it is only within the context of that agreement that it can be solved anyway.

The ironic and troubling aspect of all this is that if the issue were dealt with in the time frame as dictated by the agreement there is little doubt that it could be resolved to everyone's satisfaction.

I believe from recent discussions with republicans that there is an excellent chance that decommissioning can indeed be achieved if the proper outworking of the agreement in all its aspects is allowed. To put this in context, there were many times during Irish-American discussions with the republican movement in the early 1990s when we asked about an IRA ceasefire and were told the time was not opportune because certain factors were not in place.

Yet we learned to trust them when they said that they were working in that direction. Likewise now, I believe strongly that if the other factors in this situation, i.e. the full implementation of the agreement on all fronts goes ahead, then decommissioning will be dealt with also in an acceptable timeframe.

Indeed, the first steps have already been taken. Martin McGuinness was appointed Sinn Fein liaison with Gen John de Chastelain and the decommissioning commission and has met him several times. Gerry Adams made a statement some months back saying that violence should be over. Both developments were choreographed by the two governments to elicit a positive response from the Ulster Unionists which was not forthcoming.

Both steps were very hard won within the republican movement. The Adams statement in particular was a very difficult sell. The fact that there was minimal unionist response to the steps has hardly helped matters. "I really wish we had those two concessions now to use in the negotiations," said one senior republican I spoke with.

Arguably, the republican movement has gone as far down the road on decommissioning as the Patten Commission has on police reform. Both are still works in progress, and both will take significant time to accomplish. Both pose extreme dangers if they are mishandled, yet no one is asking the Patten Commission to rush its fences.

There is one more opportunity to move beyond this crisis when Mo Mowlam triggers the d'Hondt mechanism probably later this month and the standoff on arms comes to a head.

At that point the two governments, with the assistance of the US, would be well advised to accept the best republican assurances on the arms issue as they have previously on cease-fires. That would include the facts that there has actually been significant co-operation and that they are not against disarmament in the context of the entire agreement being implemented.

In that eventuality Gen de Chastelain should see his way to certify that the process of decommissioning is indeed under way as per the ground rules of the Belfast Agreement. In return for accepting this the unionist community would receive something very valuable, too: the real prospect of future movement on the arms issue as against the recurring fantasy about immediate IRA weapons hand-over. Only in that manner, I believe, can this crisis be resolved.

Hopefully, the dialogue this week between David Trimble and the Sinn Fein leadership will clarify for him what is actually possible as against what is being demanded. He should listen well. The opportunity is there to make this uncertain peace permanent if both sides can only grasp it.

He must know, too, that history will treat harshly any political or government leader who continues the current effort to front-load this single issue of decommissioning with its consequent ability to bring down the entire process.

It is high time for a reality check on decommissioning and for finding a new formula to solve it built on much more than shifting sand.

Niall O'Dowd is founding publisher of the Irish Voice newspaper