Category: Archive

Analysis Risks, though unlikely, are necessary to save GFA

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Jack Holland

The British and Irish governments, in an attempt to overcome the growing inertia that has beset the Northern Ireland political process, are hoping to put together proposals soon that will allow the reinstatement of the suspended power-sharing executive. Speculation suggests that an important part of this last-ditch effort will be a rescheduling of the decommissioning deadline — now set for May 22 — for another two years. According to the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, both governments are due to undertake a review of the agreement four years after the date when it was signed in April 1998.

The review date would then become the new deadline for the completion of decommissioning.

The proposals would also include a statement from the IRA similar to that which it offered on Feb. 11, just before the reimposition of direct rule, committing itself to dealing with the arms issue in the context of the full implementation of the agreement and "in a manner to ensure maximum public confidence."

The IRA would also be expected to produce a timetable aimed at completing the process by 2002 as part of the overall package.

Originally, the 2002 review date was meant to come after the governmental institutions had been working for at least two years, long enough to ensure a build up of trust between the parties involved. However, something like the opposite has in fact occurred. There has been a steady erosion of trust and — especially on the Unionist side — of support for the 1998 settlement. So much so that most see little chance of the latest attempt to reinvigorate the process succeeding.

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The post-Easter mood in political circles in Ireland is far from optimistic. The reasons are not difficult to find. The IRA’s Easter statement, read out by a hooded volunteer at a republican gathering of some 1,200 people in Carrickmore, Co. Tyrone, was a return to older republican verities, accusing the Unionists and the British government of acting in "bad faith" and attacking the "British involvement in Irish affairs, partition and the injustices which flow from that."

Speaking at the same gathering, Gerry Kelly, the Sinn Fein assembly member for North Belfast, used similar language to the IRA’s in describing how "at the stroke of a colonial pen" the British suspended the power-sharing executive, thus "undoing the democratic wishes" of the people of Ireland, who voted overwhelmingly for the agreement. Kelly, a former adjunct general of the IRA, remains an influential member of the IRA leadership.

The IRA statement did not mention decommissioning. Former IRA Chief of Staff and Westminster MP for mid-Ulster Martin McGuinness did, but only to dismiss it by using the sort of outspoken terms not heard in several years. Over the Easter weekend, speaking before a crowd of about 2,000 people at Glasnevin cemetery in Dublin, he called decommissioning "a farce, an absolute farce" and said that those making the demand "must stop now."

He warned that "the vacuum created by the absence of politics has now emboldened the rejectionists who are only too willing to risk a slide back into conflict."

An Easter statement from the Continuity IRA, which opposes the peace process, seemed to underline McGuinness’s words when it promised that it will continue its struggle to "end English colonization and imperialism in Ireland."

The republican statements were seized upon by David Trimble, the UUP leader, as proof that the IRA had "nothing of substance to offer on Feb. 11 when the institutions were suspended" and that the British government had done the right thing in imposing direct rule.

These and other developments make clear that despite of the government’s best efforts, an important question about the new initiative remains unanswered: Would the IRA be prepared to go back to its Feb. 11 position or something like it?

Given the prevailing consensus in the wake of the Easter statements this does not seem likely. But even if the answer is in the affirmative, would this be enough to enable Trimble to go before his ruling body, the Ulster Unionist Council, and argue for a reinstatement of the institutions of devolved government based on a promise and a timetable but without any decommissioning up front? This would in effect be asking the Unionists to trust the IRA for another two years — under current conditions, an unlikely event.

To some observers, the republican movement seems to be backing out of the Good Friday Agreement, though still committed to the peace process, as the recent IRA statement made plain. Trimble appears too weak to take risks, especially after he launched a spectacularly badly timed challenge to the Orange Order last weak when he threatened to remove its block vote from the UUC.

A further element of uncertainty has now entered the deliberations of the two governments with the growing speculation that the Northern Ireland secretary of state, Peter Mandelson, will be moved back to London in July in a cabinet reshuffle meant to prepare the Labor Party for the next general election.

Upcoming elections might well define the program not only of the Labor Party but of republicans and Unionists. Sinn Fein’s ard fheis two weeks ago made it clear that its energies are now being transferred to fighting for seats in the Dail and in Westminster. Trimble will be fighting off strong challenges from both his internal and external political Unionist opponents. With their focus fixed on such crucial electoral battles, Unionists and republicans may well be happy enough to let the agreement expire of its own accord rather than undertake a politically risky resuscitation attempts.

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