By John Kelly
The IRA is capable of many things. It has established that point with many so-called spectaculars during the last 30 years. Any paramilitary outfit that can stage a mass escape from Mountjoy Jail, courtesy of a helicopter, should have no problem organizing a decommissioning exercise. So, what’s the problem?
The answer is that the IRA seems to want to achieve more before it points Gen. John de Chastelain, the head of the International Commission on Decommissioning, in the direction of any of its arms and explosives.
So, does the IRA want peace or doesn’t it?
Before the referendum clearly showed that the vast majority of people on island want peace, the IRA had some considerable justification in its war against what the majority of nationalists in the North regard as "forces of occupation."
From 1970 on, there was clearly a desire on the part of the British government and the British army, working closely with the heavily armed RUC, to repress the nationalists. Early in the conflict, as the authorities opted for massive internment, there was even a declaration by a British officer that his army was "at war" with the IRA.
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From his government’s point of view, this was an unfortunate choice of words. Successive administrations, after all, had argued before the world that they were simply engaged in maintaining the peace.
They were, but in so doing they favored their traditional allies, the Northern loyalists. And in the process, they quickly converted the statelet into a anti-terrorist training camp for the British army. They even invited observers from other Western armies who wished to learn how to cope with terrorist activities in their own backyards.
Naturally, it led to resistance and further terrorism. The activities and the attitudes of various British administrations became the greatest recruiting tools the IRA could ask for.
But that is over now. It ended with the Good Friday Agreement. The Labor Party administration, which now rules Northern Ireland in cooperation with the Irish government, is sticking to its side of the bargain. British troops are being withdrawn almost daily.
Mo Mowlam, the British Northern secretary, has gone so far as to promise that if weapons from all of the paramilitary organizations are handed in, troops could be removed from the streets entirely.
In the North, former armed observation towers are gradually being dismantled much to the chagrin of some loyalist leaders who regard the gesture as being just another indication of the desire by the British to withdraw ultimately — militarily and politically.
They also point to the fact that Gerry Adams, the Provisional Sinn Fein leader, retreated to something of a hard-line stance when he told a fringe meeting of the Tribune group at the party conference that the British Labor party should actively support the unity of Ireland. Of course, he would say that to the Tribune group, wouldn’t he? After all, it represents the left wing of the party, for the little that is now worth, and always lends both ears to the most extreme political opinions.
Sinn Fein will continue to push a similar line within the Northern Ireland Assembly. There is nothing wrong with that. The agreement recognizes that Irish republicans are as entitled to hold such views, just as are the loyalists on the other side of the ideological fence.
Many members of the Labor Party agree with Adams on this point. They would also prefer to see a united Ireland. For that matter, there are quite a few Conservatives and not a few Liberal Democrats, led by former British Army officer Paddy Ashdown, who would concur wholeheartedly.
However, all of that is something of a sideshow, something that will be settled in the years to come. In the meantime, the thorny matter of decommissioning must be settled.
While Adams will continue to make most of the noise, his close friend and colleague Martin McGuinness will be much quieter. His head may not even surface above the parapet of the newspaper headlines. In the background, he will be involved in intensive discussion with Gen. de Chastelain. As a result, there may be some more significant arms "discoveries" in border counties as the political agenda progresses.
There will be no talk of surrender. There will be no massive handover. It will be a slow process, proceeding in tandem with political developments, the withdrawal of further sections of the British Army and the release of more prisoners.
There is another serious matter to be surveyed by the IRA. That is the release of loyalist weaponry. There is quite a lot of hardware owned by that source, hidden in factories, homes and farms of the North. The IRA will have to be assured that it is also forthcoming.
Of course, nothing will be accomplished if some loyalist leaders are merely using the subject of decommissioning as a pretext for their failure to implement the Good Friday Agreement. Alas, that is also a strong possibility.
Decommissioning is a stick with which the Unionist Party right wing, allied with the Democratic Unionist Party and British-based Ulster Unionist Party, can continue to beat David Trimble, Northern Ireland’s first minister, and his allies.
There is only one option for the IRA if it wishes to test their intentions. It must begin the decommissioning process. It is not beyond the guile of the organization. If there is still no progress, the world will realize the real nature of the problem, the unwillingness of the Unionist majority in the North to implement the terms of the agreement.
The problem now facing the politicians of all parties is that they must be seen to be willing to implement the agreement in all of its parts. They must attempt to ignore their own extremists as they follow that line.
Otherwise, members who do not wish to see the agreement in force, whether it is because of their fear of an ultimately united Ireland, or because it does not go far enough in the direction of that goal, will ultimately win.
All of the rational politicians of all parties are agreed on one thing: If the extremists succeed, there will be no agreement.