No Compromise On Arms
On Wednesday of this week, had things gone to plan, direct rule from Westminster as the basis of governance of Northern Ireland would have come to an end, to be replaced by the authority of the assembly and executive at Stormont.
Concurrently, the other institutions provided for in the Belfast Agreement would have come into operation, including new government departments - two of them headed by Sinn Fein ministers - and six new cross-Border bodies. Simultaneously, legal effect would have been given to the modification of the Constitution, passed by referendum last May.
The leader of the Ulster Unionists, Mr David Trimble, has issued an appeal to Sinn Fein to join in eleventh-hour talks. Mr Mitchel McLaughlin declares that his party will camp out all night if necessary to try to find a way forward. It is, perhaps, remotely possible that some formula will be found in the next 48 hours. But Ministers and officials of the two governments now consider it virtually inevitable that the Wednesday deadline will be missed.
There must be no doubt as to where responsibility for delay - it is premature to speak of failure - is to be placed. The Provisional IRA has not only refused to begin the process of decommissioning its weapons. It has not only refused to discuss a timetable for decommissioning. It has stated three times, in the clearest of language, that it will never decommission. No spokesman for Sinn Fein has distanced himself from that position. Rather have Sinn Fein's leaders sought refuge in the well-worn mantra about their electoral mandate and the fact that the agreement does not specify a start-date for decommissioning.
The Taoiseach has apparently drawn the wrath of the IRA and Sinn Fein by his Sunday Times interview last month. He placed the onus for breaking the impasse on the IRA, making the cogent point that while the agreement does not specify a start date for decommissioning, neither does it specify a start date for the release of prisoners, for examining the role of the RUC, for reducing the military presence in the streets or for reviewing the criminal justice system. All of these processes are in hand - the prisons are effectively empty of IRA prisoners. But it has been, so far, a one-way process. From the IRA there has been nothing but a contemptuous assertion that, yes, it wants its Sinn Fein colleagues in government, but, notwithstanding, it intends indefinitely to retain its capacity to kill.
If, as now seems likely, Wednesday's target-date will be missed, attention will begin to focus on St Patrick's Day in Washington and the possibility of an initiative by President Clinton. But even the President of the United States cannot make bricks without straw. His advisers recognise that without compromise on all sides the crisis cannot be resolved. But from the beginning the IRA has not moved a millimetre.
In contrast, the Ulster Unionists have time and again indicated their willingness to seek compromise. At Oslo, Mr Trimble made it clear he was not seeking a surrender of weapons to the RUC or the British army. Mr Ken Maginnis spoke a fortnight ago of giving the IRA "wriggle room". This weekend again, Mr Trimble has declared that if the IRA sends "a signal" to General John de Chastelain and if the general conveys that to him, then the process will go forward.
The core of the decommissioning issue is no different today from what it was six months ago. No democratic system can function while some participants reserve the right indefinitely to fall back upon violence and maintain an armed force to do so. The IRA and Sinn Fein do not appear to accept this and believe they can force those who are fully-committed democrats to bend to their will. It would be unthinkable that the Belfast Agreement, with all it represents, should founder. But that would be a lesser price to pay than embracing the corruption which would be implicit in a surrender to such demands.