By Jack Holland
As efforts mount to resolve the current impasse over the shadow executive, which has been blocked because of Unionist demands for paramilitary disarmament, there is speculation that the IRA is set to hold an army convention to review the cease-fire and deal with the controversial question of decommissioning. Reliable sources claim that the IRA’s July 1997 cessation was called on the basis that it would be reviewed after 15 months.
The speculation comes amid rumors that British Prime Minister Tony Blair is preparing to visit Belfast soon in a surprise move to break the current deadlock over the setting up of the shadow executive, which was supposed to have taken place by Oct. 31. It is known that Blair is determined to resolve the issue over decommissioning and its ramifications before addressing the Dail, which he is scheduled to do on Nov. 26. A trip to Belfast this week would almost certainly not be undertaken unless the prime minister was confidant that dramatic progress will be made.
Informed sources suggest that the IRA’s army convention — the supreme authority within the republican movement — would be asked to restore power to the Army Council to decide when decommissioning should begin. The supporters of Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams hold sway on the seven-member ruling body, which has led some sources to claim that such a move would facilitate an earlier than expected beginning to the decommissioning process.
One usually reliable source even claimed that a token "gesture of good faith" from the IRA could be made within the month. Republicans believe that the Unionist leader, by trying to exclude them from the shadow executive, is showing he wants to set an assembly resembling more the old Stormont, which was Unionist controlled.
"If he goes down that road, there’s going to be a return to war," said the source.
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Any token gesture from the IRA would force Trimble’s hand, according to this source, and bring irresistible pressure from Blair to get the shadow executive up and running.
The gesture would involve the destruction of a nominal amount of weaponry from the IRA’s well-supplied arms dumps under the auspices of the International Body on Decommissioning, chaired by General De Chastelain. Sinn Fein Vice President and a former Chief of Staff of the IRA Martin McGuinness was appointed to liaise with the body, which was set up under the terms of the Good Friday peace agreement. He has been dealing with the decommissioning issue for several months.
So far, only the breakaway Loyalist Volunteer Force has moved close to surrendering its weaponry. As reported in the Irish Echo last month, the LVF has offered to begin decommissioning as soon as the British government accepts that its cease-fire, announced last summer, was genuine. This would enable the LVF prisoners to be included in the early-release program under the Good Friday agreement’s provisions.
For the IRA to take such a step would be seen another sign that the use of physical force is being abandoned as an integral part of the republican movement’s struggle to achieve its goals of an all-Ireland state. It would also be the first time in the history of the movement that it has disarmed. There was no decommissioning in the 1920s, after the Civil War, nor in the early 1960s when the IRA’s border campaign collapsed. In 1972, the Official IRA called a cease-fire which eventually proved permanent. Its political wing, the Workers’ Party, entered the Dail without the Official IRA decommissioning any of its weapons, which are thought to be plentiful enough to equip between 200 and 300 activists.
Meanwhile, nationalists have accused David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist Party chief and the first minister in the assembly, of violating the Good Friday agreement, which contains the provisions for the new governing structures. Nowhere in the agreement is there any explicit reference to the need for decommissioning before members of those parties linked to paramilitary groups can take their seats on the shadow executive’s departments.
Most recently, Sinn Fein’s chairperson, Mitchel McLaughlin, has called the failure to keep the Oct. 31 deadline "a clear breach of the Good Friday agreement and a serious setback for all involved." He said that the Irish and British governments have "a duty to ensure that the agreement is implemented in full."
The taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, arrived in Belfast on Monday to begin a round of consultations with Trimble and his deputy, Seamus Mallon. He is expected to return on Friday. Both the British and Irish governments are worried that the failure to reach an agreement on the shadow executive could create a political vacuum that those who seek to undermine the settlement could exploit. On Saturday, just minutes after the deadline for the shadow executive passed, loyalist gunmen murdered a Catholic in North Belfast. Gerry Adams called on the IRA not to be provoked into retaliation. But the killing has made speculation about a token decommissioning gesture from the IRA ever more tentative, however.