By Jack Holland
Fans of Mel Brooks will recall his skit that has Moses coming down from the mountain carrying three (not two) tablets. As he holds them up, he announces, "I bring you 15 — er — 10 commandments" as one of the tablets falls to the ground, smashing into fragments.
If former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell is watching events in Northern Ireland these days, he must feel the same about his famous Six Principles. Remember them? It appears not many in Northern Ireland do. Because, unlike Moses’ commandments, it looks as if all of Mitchell’s six principles have now been dropped.
I almost feel like a spoilsport reminding everybody what Mitchell said:
"Accordingly, we recommend that the parties to such negotiations affirm their total and absolute commitment:
a. to democratic and exclusively peaceful means of resolving political issues;
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b. to the total disarmament of all paramilitary organizations;
c. to agree that such disarmament must be verifiable to the satisfaction of an independent commission;
d. to renounce for themselves, and to oppose any effort by others, to use force, or threaten to use, to influence the course or the outcome of all-party negotiations;
e. to agree to abide by the terms of any agreement reached in all-party negotiations and to resort to democratic and exclusively peaceful methods in trying to alter any expect of that outcome with which they may disagree; and,
f. to urge that "punishment" killings and beatings stop and to take effective steps to prevent such actions."
The principles are in the report on decommissioning, which the senator published in January 1996, in an attempt to break the deadlock created by the Unionists demands that the IRA begin disarming prior to Sinn Fein being allowed into all-party negotiations. The report advocated a parallel process whereby Sinn Fein would enter talks while an independent body oversaw the actual process of decommissioning. A few weeks later, the IRA ended its cease-fire, and the report was temporarily shelved.
However, when all-party talks did begin in September 1997, the six principles provided the basis for party participation. Some of them were also woven into the Good Friday agreement, which was signed seven months later.
In the agreement’s "Declaration of Support," Paragraph 4 reads:
"We reaffirm our total and absolute commitment to exclusively democratic and peaceful means of resolving differences on political issues, and our opposition to any use or threat of force by others for any political purpose, whether in regard to this agreement or otherwise."
Likewise, in Strand One of the agreement, outlining the nature of the new Northern Ireland institutions, an echo of Mitchell is heard in the oath of office:
"Those who hold office should use only democratic, non-violent means, and those who do not should be excluded or removed from office under these provisions."
These provisions were intended to reassure the democratic parties such as the SDLP and the UUP, who did not possess military wings, that those that did, Sinn Fein, the Progressive Unionist Party and the Ulster Democratic Party, were sincerely committed to abandoning violence as a means to achieve political change or as a way of enforcing their control of their areas.
Since this summer alone, the paramilitary organizations linked to these parties have murdered nine people, intimidated dozens of families from their homes, and carried out punishment beatings and shootings on a regular basis. As I write, the UDA and UVF are in the midst of a vicious feud that last week left three dead within 24 hours in North Belfast.
On Oct. 28, two men were shot in Unity Flats by the IRA in punishment attacks. During the weekend of Oct. 28, in North Belfast, where the latest feud flare-up is centered, 17 Protestant families were reportedly forced from their homes by other Protestants because of their alleged association with the wrong organization. There were 78 republican assaults and shootings, and 127 on the loyalist side, through Oct. 8.
Last Wednesday night, Nov. 1, 40 to 50 people with pickets showed up outside the home of Anthony McIntyre in the Ballymurphy area of West Belfast. An IRA man-turned-academic, McIntyre has been critical of the Provisional IRA’s current policy and blamed the organization for the murder of Joe O’Connor, a republican, in Ballymurphy three weeks ago. According to McIntyre’s partner, Carrie Twomey, who is an American, the crowd was led by a Sinn Fein candidate for the local city council seat. Twomey said, "They were shouting and yelling, accusing us of endangering people’s lives." She was home alone at the time. The picketers said they would return when McIntyre came back from a political conference he was attending.
This is the second time such a picket was mounted on the McIntyre home.
If I may paraphrase George Orwell: it is a constant struggle to see what is going on in front of your nose. Clearly, murder, punishment shootings and other acts of intimidation are in violation of the commitments made under the Mitchell Principles and the Good Friday agreement by parties with links to the organizations responsible for the violence.
Yet, two PUP assembly members linked to the UVF continue to sit in the assembly. One of them, Billy Hutchinson, has recently refused to condemn the UVF murders and indeed indicated that they are to be expected.
Gerry Adams, whose party holds two seats in the government, in a column on the O’Connor shooting did not actually condemn it but with the usual and well-practiced Provisional republican convolutions described it as a "tragedy."
Less serious but still ominous, the so-called "picketing" of Provisional critics contains a sinister element of menace that flies in the face of Sinn Fein’s commitment to "use only democratic, non-violent means" to convey its views.
It seems that neither the Mitchell Principles nor the commitments in the agreement to employ only peaceful means are legally enforceable. The agreement’s pledge of office applies just to ministers. An assembly member would have to be convicted in court before he or she could be expelled. Even if the Provisionals were to relaunch their campaign, Sinn Fein’s position in the assembly would not be affected legally, despite the party’s commitment to use only peaceful means. Sinn Fein would no doubt say that it is not the IRA and so not liable for any sanction.
It appears, then, that the Mitchell Principles, and the agreement commitments, are destined, like the Ten Commandments, to be "more honored in the breach than in the observance."