By Ray O’Hanlon
It would be a tragedy of immense proportions if current difficulties over decommissioning prevented the Good Friday peace agreement from going into effect, Fine Gael leader and former taoiseach John Bruton said at Fordham University last Saturday.
Speaking at an event organized by Fordham’s Institute of Irish Studies, Bruton, who once caused uproar in Ireland by stating to a radio reporter that he was sick and tired of the peace process, said that a failure to fully implement the accord would mean that peace talks would have to start all over again "in most unfavorable circumstances."
In his speech, Bruton focused in particular on Sinn Féin and the Progressive Unionist Party, both parties having the greatest apparent difficulties with regard to immediate paramilitary decommissioning.
Bruton said that in signing up to the Mitchell Principles in 1997, both Sinn Féin and the PUP — which is linked to the Ulster Volunteer Force — had given their "total and absolute commitment to the total disarmament of all paramilitary organizations."
Both parties, Bruton continued, had reaffirmed this commitment in the Good Friday agreement of last year and had agreed that they would use all the influence they had to achieve decommissioning of all paramilitary arms within two years following the endorsement of the agreement by referendum.
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Now, more than halfway through that two-year period, neither the IRA nor the UVF had put any arms beyond use, Bruton said.
"All the evidence suggests that the IRA and the UVF now have a position that they will either never disarm or, at best, that they will not even make a start on the first part of their Good Friday agreement obligation to disarmament until every other obligation in the agreement on every other party has been fulfilled in total, Bruton said.
With regard to Sinn Féin and the IRA in particular, Bruton said that he had difficulties with Sinn Féin’s expressed position that the party is not the IRA. He added that "very few people" believed that Sinn Féin and the IRA were separate from one another.
"All the briefing that I received as taoiseach suggested to me that there is a common policy direction of both organizations and that they are interlocked in the way in which they work," he said.
Bruton said that there was also the difficulty that if Sinn Féin, as it claimed, was genuinely separate from the IRA, then it would have the freedom to disagree with the IRA.
"Given that Sinn Féin have already given total commitment to the disarmament of paramilitary organizations, Sinn Féin should therefore be free to disagree with the IRA, who are refusing to countenance any disarmament. Yet Sinn Féin have not done this," Bruton said.
"They have allowed their ‘total and absolute commitment to disarmament’ in the Mitchell Principles to be overridden by the position of the Army Council. If, in practice, they are prepared to set aside their own solemn commitment in favor of the pronouncements of the Army Council, then the evidence leads inexorably to the conclusion that they are not in practice independent of the IRA at all."
In conclusion, Bruton posed the questions that if "the war" was over what did loyalist and republican paramilitaries need guns for and why were they so insistent on keeping guns?
"Is it because they want to have the option of returning to violence at some future stage? If so, then they have not accepted the Good Friday agreement."