By Jack Holland
Decommissioning is a sword of Damocles that has been hanging over the peace process since 1995 and is now threatening to bring about at least the temporary demise of the Good Friday peace agreement. Yet until 1995 it was not a major preoccupation for either the British or Irish governments. The IRA and Sinn Fein point out that during the entire course of the secret talks from October 1990 to November 1993 between their representatives and British government officials, it was not raised.
Before 1995, there are only a few scattered references to it on record.
Oct. 10, 1993: Secretary Of State Sir Patrick Mayhew, speaking on RTE, said that in the event of a cease-fire, the IRA would have to make its guns and explosives "available" as proof that violence was over.
Dec. 15, 1993: In the wake of the Downing Street Declaration, in the Dail the minister for foreign affairs, Dick Spring, stated that cease-fires would have to be followed by a "a handing up of arms."
On Aug. 31 1994, the IRA cease-fire began. It was followed on Oct. 13 by a cease-fire declaration from the three main loyalist groups, the UDA, UVF and Red Hand Commandos. In their response, neither the British nor Irish governments issued any demand for decommissioning. Instead, the British prime minister, John Major, focused on the absence of the word "permanent" from the IRA’s announcement. It was not until seven months later that decommissioning became an issue.
Follow us on social media
Keep up to date with the latest news with The Irish Echo
March 7, 1995: Sir Patrick Mayhew, speaking in Washington, D.C., demands that before Sinn Fein is allowed to join the talks the IRA must show "a willingness in principle to disarm progressively" and offer a "tangible confidence-building measure", i.e. a token gesture of disarmament. Irish Taoiseach John Bruton supported Mayhew in a statement on March 15 in which he said, "If you are pursuing the democratic road. you don’t need arms. . . . It is a question now of how they are dealt with."
From then onward, the issue of decommissioning assumed a vital importance in the peace process. Mayhew repeated the demand at his first meeting with Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein president, on May 24. Sinn Fein rejected the demand soon afterward. It equated decommissioning with surrender.
June 14, 1995: Adams told the Irish Times that "the demand for the surrender of IRA weapons as a precondition to negotiations was never mentioned by the British government before Aug. 31 1994. . . . The British government is not simply interested in a gesture. It is, in reality, demanding the start of a surrender process as a precondition to all-party talks."
Sept. 4, 1995: Adams stated: "We can’t deliver that."
It was not until September that year that the IRA itself referred to decommissioning.
Sept. 29, 1995: The IRA rules out decommissioning, stating that "there is no possibility of disarmament except as part of a negotiated settlement. . . . The demand for an IRA hand over of weapons is ludicrous."
On Dec. 8, 1995, the IRA repeated what it had said three months earlier. "There is no question of Oglaigh na h-Eireann meeting the ludicrous demand for a surrender of IRA weapons either through the front or back doors."
The loyalist parties linked to the UDA and UVF generally supported the Sinn Fein line on decommissioning. Gary McMichael, speaking for the Ulster Democratic Party, which represents the UDA, wrote on Nov. 2 that " a physical hand-over of weapons" was not a solution.
The British persisted. The Irish government was growing uneasy by this time, and John Bruton warned the British not to be so "immutable" in their demands. Meanwhile, the IRA Army Council had met and decided that if the British demand for a hand-over of weapons were not dropped, it would end the cease-fire.
A "twin-track" approach was developed with the help of former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell. A commission would be set up to look at decommissioning. At the same time all-party talks would be convened. The approach was adopted by both governments just in time for the visit of President Clinton to Belfast at the end of November 1995. However, it did not save the first IRA cease-fire from collapse on Feb. 9, 1996. A third IRA statement on decommissioning followed a month later.
March 1996: In an interview with An Phoblacht, an IRA spokesman said decommissioning was an "unrealistic and unrealizable demand. The IRA will under no circumstances leave nationalist areas defenseless this side of a final settlement." In their Easter statement, on April 4 that year, the IRA spelled out the republican position, saying, "The British have no mandate or right in Ireland and they will not be permitted to set preconditions."
This was followed up by a hard-hitting statement from Brian Keenan, a leading Belfast IRA member.
Speaking at a republican commemoration on May 14, 1996, Keenan told his audience: "Do not be confused about the politics of the situation and about decommissioning. The only thing the republican movement will accept is the decommissioning of the British state in this country."
June 5, 1996: In a statement sent to the BBC, the IRA addressed the matter once again. "Let us nail completely the position on decommissioning," it stated. "The IRA will not be decommissioning its weapons through either the front or back doors."
The IRA called another cease-fire on July 20, 1997, following the election victory of the Labor Party under Tony Blair’s leadership. Blair became the new British prime minister. Within six weeks of the second cessation, Sinn Fein was engaged in all-party talks. But though decommissioning had been removed as a precondition to entry into those talks, it had not gone away.
As the talks neared completion in April 1998, Ulster Unionists demanded that decommissioning be made an explicit part of any agreement. Instead, the agreement stated that the paramilitary-linked parties would use their influence to see that decommissioning would be completed by May 2000. Blair tried to reassure a nervous David Trimble, the Unionist leader, on the matter.
On April 10, 1998, Blair wrote to Trimble: "I confirm that in our view the effect of the decommissioning section of the agreement, with decommissioning schemes coming into effect in June, is that the process of decommissioning should begin straight away."
The IRA once more rejected this demand. Within days of the agreement being signed it stated: "Let us make it clear that there will be no decommissioning by the IRA." But two months later Padraig Wilson, the IRA commander in the Maze Prison, adopted a softer line.
June 16, 1998: Wilson told the Financial Times: "I think voluntary decommissioning would be the natural development of the peace process once we get a sense that the arrangements envisaged in the agreement are beginning to function." However, six months later, the agreement was in crisis as Unionists refused to accept Sinn Fein into the proposed new executive without prior decommissioning.
Dec. 18, 1998: The Loyalist Volunteer Force decommissions a small quantity of weapons in Belfast. But this did not ease the situation. Hopes to set up the new government of Northern Ireland did not materialize in February. A deadline was set for the agreement’s implementation in April. It was not met.
April 1, 1999: The two governments issued a statement saying that some arms should be "put beyond use" as part of a national day of reconciliation to take place a month after the setting up of the new institutions in "shadow" form. But over Easter republicans hardened their position. Keenan once more rejected outright the disarmament demand.
April 3, 1999: Keenan told a small audience in Monaghan: "I don’t know where they get this word decommissioning, because it strikes me they mean it like it is a surrender. There will be no surrender."
A few days after this, the UVF and Red Hand Commandos stated that they would not decommission even if the IRA did. By the beginning of this week, it looked as if the governments’ attempt to find a compromise had failed.