By Jack Holland
It is mid-January, and with no apparent sign that the IRA is moving toward decommissioning, reliable sources are reporting "growing concern" in London, Dublin, Belfast and Washington about the fate of the power-sharing executive whose continued existence Ulster Unionists have predicated upon the beginning of decommissioning sometime before early February.
At this stage, observers of the Northern Ireland situation can be forgiven for mixing — or stretching — their metaphors as once more the tension rises and yet another "abyss" looms. With only weeks to go before the Ulster Unionist Executive meets to decide whether the party can continue in government, depending on the IRA’s satisfying Unionists that decommissioning has begun, one well-informed source commented that republicans were now facing "the last of the Rubicons."
Of course, C’sar had to cross only one Rubicon, which action signaled the outbreak of civil war in Rome. In the last decade and a half, republicans have taken so many major deviations from their traditional policies that it has become difficult to say which of them might have been the real "Rubicon" and which the tributary.
The "Rubicons" republicans have already crossed have been impressive enough.
First, the recognition of the Dail in 1986; second, the ending of the armed campaign in 1997, and, third, the recognition in 1997 of a Northern Ireland devolved assembly and the decision to allow Sinn Fein members to take their seats in it. But the "Rubicon" that is looming now, that of weapons decommissioning, involves, in the end, the very existence of the Irish Republican Army. Hence the disbelief and skepticism in many quarters that the republican movement will ever cross it.
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The IRA was able to recognize the Dail and still sustain a campaign against Northern Ireland. It was able to call a cease-fire — first in 1994 and then in 1997 — and still hold its military organization together, though with some difficulty, on the assumption that if things didn’t go as planned then "the boys" would be there when needed. Certainly, the decision to recognize a Northern Ireland government (as set up under the provisions of the Good Friday peace agreement) was stressful, and led to the most significant break within republican ranks since the peace process began. But as long as the IRA’s organization remained intact, weapons in hand, it could maintain a certain distance from the actions of its political wing with the pretense that what Sinn Fein said or did was separate from the IRA’s concerns. But if the IRA goes ahead and crosses the Rubicon of decommissioning, then it will effectively mean that as a functioning military force it has come to end, subsumed into the political mainstream by the political ambitions of Sinn Fein.
No wonder many hardened observers view such a development as unthinkable. They point to the lack of movement so far as proof that the IRA is prepared to let the current political experiment fail in order to hold on to the last vestige of its "republican" credentials.
"The logic is they have to cross it [the Rubicon]," said an informed source who has been closely involved with the peace process for several years. "It’s the last of the big ones. If the politicos are in charge it will happen sooner rather than later." But, he added, "My heart says ‘no.’ "
However, pessimists have a hard time explaining why the republican movement would allow the Good Friday agreement to unravel after expending so much time and energy to bring it about. It could be that republicans are simply playing hard to get.
"They are incredibly good negotiators," said a source who was closely involved with the talks that led to the Good Friday agreement. "The republican movement only yields at the last possible moment — squeezing the most out of the situation. Look at the Mitchell Review, when they offered a deal only at the last minute."
In the Unionist community the mood has been volatile. Last week, Chris McGimpsey, a UUP councilor for the Shankill Road area who is a strong backer of the agreement, expressed confidence that the IRA would do enough "to let Trimble go forward." He said that if General John De Chastelain, the chairman of the decommissioning body, "assures us that large quantities of gun and ammunition have been put beyond use, it would be acceptable."
The phrase "put beyond use" is taken straight from the Sinn Fein lexicon, where it is used as an acceptable substitute for decommissioning.
However, the mood has swung the other way this week with assembly member Duncan Shipley-Dalton, also a strong backer of the agreement, warning that he would not be able to continue supporting his party’s participation in government with Sinn Fein if there is no movement from the IRA by the end of this month. The problem is that as time passes, and the hue and cry for decommissioning increases, it actually makes it harder for the IRA to comply.
The issue could well be affected by the Northern Ireland Secretary of State Peter Mandelson’s statement in the Commons this week on police reform. Mandelson is expected to announce the implementation of the bulk of the recommendations made in the Patten report on policing, which call for sweeping reforms of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, including the changing of its name to the Northern Ireland Police Service.
"This is the government’s final card to get them to decommission," commented an RUC veteran. "It’s a question of ‘we’re decommissioning our people, so you decommission yours.’ "
However, the republican movement has made it clear that there is no "cross-reference" in the agreement that would tie such reforms to decommissioning.
In the meantime, Sinn Fein assembly member Francie Molloy hinted on Monday that the IRA would decommission. He stated that "when" the IRA decommissioned it would be "voluntary." It is unlikely, however, that this will calm political nerves in the absence of evidence that the process has begun.
It is possible, some speculate, that a strong statement from de Chastelain saying that progress is being made, that things are on track, and that though no "product" is available right now, he is confident that it will be forthcoming by May, could enable Trimble to go before the UUP executive on Feb. 12 and argue that this gives the party enough grounds to remain in government until the date set in the agreement for the completion of decommissioning. Most important, it would remove the threat of a Unionist-imposed deadline on the IRA. But whether Trimble is strong enough to defend that position remains in serious doubt.