By Jack Holland
As the latest attempt to reach agreement among the parties to the Good Friday peace agreement ended without success, sources close to the negotiations said that the republican movement is prepared to allow the agreement to collapse rather than meet the Unionist demand for some decommissioning of IRA weapons.
Talks in London between the main parties to the agreement and both governments concluded on Monday without result, with London and Dublin saying they will be reconvened next week. The immediate cause of the talks was the failure of the Hillsborough Declaration of April 1 to find sufficient support. That declaration was an attempt by British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Irish counterpart, Bertie Ahern, to bridge the gap between Unionists’ decommissioning demands and the IRA’s outright rejection of them.
"People were wrong when they said that the republican movement had too much invested in the political process to allow it to collapse," one well-placed source said.
At the weekend, Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams said that the agreement was in a free fall. He demanded that the British government should go ahead and implement the agreement’s provisions for the executive, cross-border bodies, and other institutions agreed on April 10 of last year. This would almost certainly provoke a walk-out of the Unionist Party, which has said it will not sit in the executive with Sinn Fein members until the IRA makes some move toward decommissioning its trove of arms and explosives.
Sources close to the talks believe that both Sinn Fein and the IRA would be happy with a confrontation between the British government and unionism, since they believe that Britain’s continuing failure to "stand up" to the Unionists is at the heart of the crisis.
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For republicans, the failure proves their longstanding thesis that unionism will never be able to forge a relationship with republicans.
"They would be happy with both governments running the place," commented one source, "with other provisions of the agreement, such as the human rights commission, the equality commission and the policing commission, all working." These were all seen as concessions to nationalists. Sinn Fein would not view the loss of the assembly or even the failure to set up the cross-border bodies as important. Republicans traditionally have been opposed to any local government for Northern Ireland, and would not regret the loss of the cross-border bodies too much since they were much weaker in scope than they had wanted.
However, sources close to the Irish government see such a scenario as unlikely. They believe that Britain could not allow only those aspects of the agreement favorable to nationalism to survive — if it did, it would risk strengthening the growing anti-agreement sentiment among Protestants and play into the hands of the Rev. Ian Paisley and other militant loyalists who have rejected the settlement. With the European elections approaching, it would spell trouble for David Trimble, the UUP leader and first minister of the executive.
As an alternative, an Irish source suggested that over the coming weeks "the plusses from the Hillsborough Declaration can be built on and the issue of decommissioning can be addressed in a wider security context."
Privately, Irish government officials express growing impatience with the Sinn Fein position. In New York last week, former Taoiseach John Bruton strongly criticized Sinn Fein and the Progressive Unionist Party, which is linked to the UVF, for their adamant refusal to move on the decommissioning issue. He said that "one of the principles to which both Sinn Fein and the Progressive Unionist Party agreed in 1997 was that they gave their ‘total and absolute commitment to the total disarmament of all paramilitary organizations.’ That was absolutely clear. In signing up to the Mitchell Principles, Sinn Fein were giving their ‘total and absolute commitment’ to the disarmament of the IRA."
In spite of the ongoing political crisis, most reliable sources agree that the prospect of the IRA’s return to violence is "inconceivable." However, they warn that further loyalist violence is a real danger. Government sources believe that the main threat emanates from the Ulster Defense Association, which may have been involved in the booby-trap car bomb murder of nationalist lawyer Rosemary Nelson in March. Any widespread outbreak of loyalist attacks over the coming months would strengthen the IRA’s stance on decommissioning.
Such a development would also bolster Sinn Fein and further demoralize the Social Democratic and Labor Party, which has condemned both unionists and republicans for their intransigence. Sinn Fein and the SDLP will be resuming their battle for nationalist votes in June with the European elections, which Sinn Fein trying to realize its ambition of becoming the main spokesman for Northern nationalists. However, it is also possible that its hardline strategy on decommissioning could backfire, especially in the Irish Republic, with the party being blamed for not being more flexible.
If loyalist violence was to be renewed on a serious scale, the republican movement could also come under pressure to retaliate, further setting back any hopes for an early resolution of the current political deadlock.