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A View North Arms and the man: de Chastelain waits

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Jack Holland

Shortly after General John de Chastelain took charge of the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning, he went on a walkabout in the Clonard district of West Belfast, the epicenter of the August 1969 upheavals which led to the 30 years of violence that the general is now trying to help bring to a permanent end. Near the Peace Wall that runs along the foot of Bombay Street — burned down by loyalist rioters on the night of Aug. 14 — he fell into conversation with a woman who lived there.

"I’m John de Chastelain," he said, "on the decommissioning commission."

"You’re doing a great job," she said, shaking his hand.

"We’ll only have done a great job when we get the guns," he replied.

She looked at him, somewhat taken aback.

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"Jaysus, I hope you never do," she answered. "We need them here."

She quickly explained that without the IRA’s arms there would be nobody to protect her and the other Catholics in the area.

The general told this anecdote last week on a visit to New York, where he spoke at the Canadian Club at the Penn Club on West 44th Street. It was part of the Canadian Club’s Conversation Series, where prominent Canadians talk about their life and work. De Chastelain, said almost nothing about his life, and very little about his work prior to his involvement in Northern Ireland. We gleaned that he had been chief of the Defense Staff and had spent one year as Canada’s ambassador to Washington. But he made clear right at the start that there’d be "no illustrious career talk" that evening.

"I will talk about decommissioning and why it’s important," he told his audience.

General de Chastelain proceeded, without notes, in 30 minutes to run through the history of the decommissioning problem. But the little anecdote, which came during the question-and-answer session, brought out one of the underlying problems that his talk did not really touch upon. The history of Ulster is a history of militias, underground armies and secret societies, of people arming themselves for defense often against their neighbor. From the 18th Century onward, almost every generation has thrown up armed organizations. In the 18th and 19th Centuries there were the Whiteboys, Peep O’Day Boys, The Hearts of Oak, and the Orange Order. The first decades of the 20th produced the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Ulster Protestant Volunteers, an East Belfast vigilante group that turned into an assassination squad. In the later decades came the Ulster Defense Association, the Red Hand Commandos, the Loyalist Volunteer Force, the Provisional IRA and the Irish National Liberation Army, to name but a few.

Usually, these groups sprang up at times of crisis. But even during peaceful periods, such as in the mid-1960s, there were always organizations, or at least gangs, of men who had access to illegal arms and believed, at some level, in their right to possess them. For instance, by 1966 on the Protestant Shankill Road in Belfast there were at least three gangs who called themselves the UVF, including that set up by Gusty Spence.

It is a tradition which is also found in other parts of Ireland, of course. But in Ulster it has been more prolific thanks to the rivalry between Catholic and Protestant, nationalist and loyalist, over the centuries. In the rest of Ireland, armed groups opposed the state under British rule. But in Ulster, some if not most of the armed groups were formed in defense of the state, and in opposition to Irish nationalism.

That is, the resort to illegal arms exists and has existed in Ulster because sufficient numbers of people believe that either the state is illegitimate, or, alternatively, that the forces of the state are inadequate for its protection from its enemies within and without. That is the historical context in which the decommissioning issue is firmly placed in Northern Ireland.

It is a tradition founded solidly on distrust. Nationalists distrust the forces of the state, believing they are unable or unwilling to protect them. Loyalists, on the other hand, believe that the forces of the state have been unable by themselves to deal with republican subversion. These are not the harebrained notions of alienated crackpots, but are held by often ordinary, respectable people, who under normal circumstances or in normal states would be firm upholders of the law. That is why, despite more than two years of failure to get any major move on decommissioning, de Chastelain does not see thousands of outraged people parading the streets of the North demanding arms be handed in or destroyed and the peace process thereby rescued. That is not to say that most people in Northern Ireland do not want peace. They do, but they also want protection.

The problem that de Chastelain and his commission must deal with is therefore secondary to the political one of creating a state which earns the trust of the Catholic community without arousing the hostility and insecurity of the Protestants. There is nothing really that the good general can do while that problem remains unsolved, as it does.

He explained that the remit of the IICD does not allow it to actively seek to encourage groups to decommission but merely to "consider, propose, facilitate and report" after armed organizations have engaged with it with an offer of decommissioning. The IICD stays out of politics. Since there has been almost no decommissioning in the last two years, the general was asked what it was he actually did during his time in Northern Ireland.

He explained that he was kept busy enough keeping up liaisons with the police North and South of the border. They provide him with updates on what’s going on in the various groups, though they do not, he stressed, give him "operational intelligence." Then he has regular meetings with the different politicians and governments. But time was running out, he told us. He said that if by June decommissioning has not been achieved, then the IICD would probably disband, and the Good Friday agreement would be imperiled. The IRA has never discussed "modalities" with the IICD. Meanwhile, the loyalists tell him that they will not begin to decommission until the IRA does.

He has had one success though. In December 1998, the LVF decommissioned a small weapons cache.

"We spread it out on the table to make it look like a lot," the general said.

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