Primate appeals for weapons shift
Here in Northern Ireland we have been given another chance to build peace. We must grasp the chance and make sure it is not lost again. Yet there are serious problems. People in both sections of the community have great fears about the future. Unionists fear being forced into a united Ireland against their will; nationalists fear being once again marginalised.
A lot of people need to be convinced there will be no return to violence. They also need to be convinced the commitment to peace and democratic means is genuine and the commitment to accepting and implementing the agreement in a full and meaningful way is genuine. The decommissioning issue is also a reflection of fears. I would appeal to all sides not to allow decommissioning to become an obstacle to the implementation of the agreement. It seems to me the sooner the Assembly and its executive are up and running, the sooner trust will be given a chance to grow.
It is important to realise that there are many issues, apart from decommissioning, which will cause difficulties and which will not be satisfactorily dealt with unless some degree of mutual trust and confidence is established. Decommissioning issues really are a reflection of the fears of both sides. Some nationalists fear there is a wish to exclude them in the future Northern Ireland, whereas some unionists fear a return to violence.
I believe these two perceptions are incorrect. Unionists are open to working with Sinn Fein and are, in many cases, already doing so when they believe that violence has permanently ended, which, I believe, is now the case.
The decommissioning of arms is seen as a token of the decommissioning of minds and hearts which must take place. All agree it is the decommissioning of the mindset which is important. It is the outcome of the process which is really essential. It is the change of attitude of those who have been prepared to use arms to achieve political ends which is absolutely necessary.
Granted that how and when decommissioning takes place is a matter for discussion between paramilitaries and the decommissioning body, nevertheless the impact of some decommissioning now would be powerful. It would in itself be a wonderful confidence-building measure because it would be a powerful statement of faith that the promise contained in the Good Friday agreement can be achieved and will be achieved.
It would be a clear vote of confidence in the ability of those carrying out the decommissioning to find their protection for the future, not in guns and bombs, but in the new political relationships which can be formed.
Decommissioning is not and never can be the foundation of a lasting peace. Peace can only be founded on the recognition of human dignity and on the respect for human rights which flows from that dignity. Peace flourishes where human rights are respected.
However, decommissioning could be an important element in the resolution of the present impasse. When they endorsed the Good Friday agreement by a substantial majority, the people of Ireland, North and South, were stating quite clearly that they oppose the use of physical force to achieve political ends. They were saying that there can be no place for private armies in the Northern Ireland of the future.
It is wrong to speak of guns as being necessary for defence since in the past many people were murdered, despite the fact that paramilitaries were heavily armed on both sides. Decommissioning needs to start some time, why not now? Sometimes in the negotiations of a political settlement the order in which the different pieces of the jigsaw are put in place may not be entirely to our liking. But the important thing is that eventually all the pieces do fall into place.
The Good Friday agreement inspired a vision of peace for our land. That vision has received its share of setbacks, most notably in Omagh on August 15th. Nevertheless it has survived the storm and continues on its journey of hope. It has done so because enough people have decided the time has come to hammer the swords into ploughshares and the spears into sickles. They are determined that never again, in this part of the world at least, will nation lift up sword against nation. There will be no more training for war.
Of course, there are still obstacles, but obstacles are meant to be overcome. For me a suggestion already made by others is particularly attractive: it is that we follow the example of Chile and Argentina. In 1902, after decades of conflict, Chile and Argentina finally reached agreement. To mark the occasion they jointly constructed a 29ft statue of Christ which was moulded from the metal of old guns and cannons. On it they put this inscription:
Sooner these mountains crumble to dust than the Argentinians and Chileans break the peace sworn at the feet of Christ, the Redeemer.
Can we not turn all our weapons into one great statue of Christ as a symbol to the world that in future we will try to resolve our differences, not with guns and bombs, but only through the cut and thrust of political debate?
As we enter the new year let us redouble our efforts for peace. Let us continue to work and pray and hope for peace. Let us give our politicians the space and encouragement to win the peace which we all so desperately need and desire.