By Jack Holland
The British government’s decision to reimpose direct rule has thrown the Good Friday agreement into deep crisis for the second time in less than a year. It has brought confusion, doubt, dismay and anger to the Northern Ireland peace process, provoking the IRA to break off talks with the decommissioning commission, and delivering the severest setback to hopes for a solution to the Northern Ireland crisis since the ending of the IRA’s first cease-fire in February 1996.
There is confusion over whether the British Northern Ireland secretary of state, Peter Mandelson, had the right to suspend the agreement, since no one was actually in default of its terms. Political expert Professor Brendan O’Leary pointed out one week before direct rule was brought back that since sovereignty had been conferred by the Good Friday agreement on the Northern Ireland assembly, Britain did not have the constitutional right to suspend it.
The decision has raised many doubts on many fronts, including whether the Ulster Unionist Party leader, David Trimble, will be able to carry his party back with him into a reconstituted devolved government. At the meeting last Saturday with the 860-member Unionist council, the party’s ruling body, he agreed that before he goes back into government the move will have to be approved by the council. In the meantime, the party announced that it was setting up a "working committee" to carry out its own review of the agreement. This has prompted some observers to speculate about whether the agreement is effectively doomed on the Unionist side.
The decision to reimpose direct rule dismayed many nationalists. It was taken within hours of the chairman of the decommissioning commission, Gen. John De Chastelain, delivering his second, optimistic report, outlining the IRA’s acceptance of the need to put arms "beyond use." Mandelson said the report came too late. Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams claimed the British were aware of its contents some hours before it was issued.
The British allege, on the other hand, that Adams was on the telephone to British Prime Minister Tony Blair at the very time suspension was ordered but did not mention the IRA’s new position. At any rate, the British now say that even though the report represented progress, it was too vague to have allowed Trimble to weather the meeting of the Ulster Unionist council.
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Republicans feel anger at Mandelson’s decision because they see it as yet another example of the British allowing Unionists to veto progress, and to go outside the terms of the Good Friday agreement. This anger was expressed most concretely by the announcement on Tuesday, Feb. 15, that the IRA was no longer liaising with the de Chastelain commission.
In the wake of what transpired last Friday, this move should not come as a surprise. The republican movement has always insisted that there can be no decommissioning until the political institutions envisioned in the agreement are "up and running." They repeated this position, more or less, to de Chastelain last week, saying that arms would be put beyond use in the context of the implementation of the agreement. Mandelson’s decision to reimpose direct rule clearly dissolves that context.
Last week, the IRA’s new position was welcomed as "progress," and it was seen as a shift toward linking the overall demilitarization of the situation with decommissioning. But it was rapidly rescinded when Mandelson moved to suspend the power-sharing government. But even the supposed shift contained what some saw as a new and ominous catch. The IRA spoke about the removal of the causes of the conflict being necessary before decommissioning can begin. If this is interpreted as a return to traditional republican theory, which holds that the cause of the Northern conflict is Britain’s presence there, then it would foreclose any real hope of decommissioning short of a British withdrawal.
In July, when the agreement was put under review, there were gloomy predictions that it would not survive a two-month suspension. It did, and former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell managed after eight weeks to get it back on track. This time around, there is no such rescue on the horizon, as Unionists and republicans retire behind their old, forbidding barricades.