Category: Archive

Analysis Trimble jumps — can Adams be far behind?

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Jack Holland

The beginning of the end of this stage of the Northern Ireland peace process started last week with a blizzard of conciliatory statements from unionists, republicans, George Mitchell, and both governments.

It continued this week with a forceful statement in the House of Commons by the North’s Secretary of State Peter Mandelson in which he said that conditions were right for him to call a meeting of the Northern Ireland assembly on Nov. 29 to ask it to nominate ministers to the power-sharing executive.

"Assuming ministers have been nominated," he continued, "Parliament will be invited to approve a devolution order under the Northern Ireland Act 1998 on Tuesday, Nov. 30. And powers will be transferred on Thursday, 2 Dec."

Two things have called this optimistic scenario into doubt. The first is Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimble’s ability to convince his party’s governing body on Saturday that his U-turn — dropping the "no guns, no government" demand — is justified.

And that depends largely on whether he can assure his colleagues that the understanding he has built up with the republican leadership during the 11 weeks of the Mitchell review will deliver decommissioning of paramlitary weapons if not now, then sooner rather than later.

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Recent reports of remarks made by traveling Sinn Fein spokesmen in the U.S. have not made his task any easier. Last week, Pat Doherty and Martin Ferris both appeared to have cast doubt on the sincerity of the republican movement’s commitment to decommissioning, provoking hasty denials and restatements from the party and a feeling of exasperation in some Sinn Fein circles.

However, whatever they said, and whatever they meant, will probably have little effect in the long run. The IRA has agreed to appoint a representative to meet with the Decommissioning Commission headed by Gen. John De Chastelain. This is supposed to occur within hours of the Executive, with two Sinn Fein ministers nominated to seats, coming into being.

According to Mandelson’s House of Commons statement: "Like Sen. Mitchell, I believe that with the institutions established, and everything up and running, decommissioning will happen as a natural and essential development of the peace process . . . no longer are the IRA ruling out decommissioning either by the back door or the front door. I do not believe that the Republican movement would have created expectations as they have if they do not intend to deliver."

It is noticeable how the participants in this process so carefully echo each other’s phrases. The day before Mandelson spoke, a "republican source" was quoted in the Dublin Sunday Business Post as saying: "As long as the institutions are up and running, there will be no support for armed struggle. . . . There will be a time when the order is given to dump arms and then a decision will be made on how to dispose of weapons in a way that can be verified by de Chastelain."

Informed official sources believe that this is the first time that the republican movement has made such an explicit admission that the establishment of the Good Friday agreement’s institutions would be enough to bring about the de facto ending of the armed struggle. But clearly, the Provisionals are having some problems within their own camp on publicly accepting this.

Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness caused a further stir on Tuesday when he upbraided Mandelson for suggesting that if the IRA fails to meet the decommissioning requirements, then a "default mechanism" would come into play that would wind up all the institutions of the agreement, including the power-sharing Executive and the cross-border bodies. Once more, this caused problems for Trimble as he fought to convince skeptical Unionists that the republican movement would be as good as its word.

Informed sources believe that the republican movement has been made jittery by some of the coverage in the media, which suggests that decommissioning is imminent, and is trying to reassure grass-roots support that there will be no immediate handover of weapons. This caution is especially noticeable in relation to America, where as one official source put it, "Irish-American dissidents have the capacity to cause trouble."

No time frame has been set, at least in public, for the decommissioning process to begin. But press speculation has mentioned that sometime toward the end of January as the period that will see "product."

The next few days will be the most delicate for the success or failure of the agreement, and loose words have the potential to weaken Trimble’s fragile leadership. As one source close to the process said: "It’s his appointed time in history."

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