By John Kelly
The big news about the historic opening sessions of the Northern Ireland Assembly was that there was little big news at all. There were few fireworks — and that is a good thing indeed. There have been too many over the years. However, Sir John Gorman, the former chairman of the Northern Ireland Forum, put his finger on the main issue of current concern when, addressing Gerry Adams as "Gerry," and praising his courage in his pursuit of the peace agreement, said: "Now, Gerry, here’s the chance for you to show that leadership and discipline I know you are capable of. Gerry, you brought the Semtex here. What about a big bang to get rid of it as much as you can?"
Gerry didn’t answer, of course. After all, he did not bring the Semtex into the North. And he certainly did not single-handedly create the mayhem of the last 30 years. He is as much a victim of the intrinsic violence and instability of the North as any of the politicians who sit in the new chamber and the people they represent.
Still, it is a question that he or people whom he knows well will have to answer at some juncture.
The big questions concern the when and how the Provisional IRA will disarm. They are questions that are surely vexing Canadian Gen. John de Chastelain, who is charged with the task of getting the Provisional IRA to dispose of its armory: the guns, the rockets, the Semtex and the detonators.
One of the major problems he will face is that the media emphasis seems to be on the Provos. There are lots of other weapons in the North, much of them held by loyalist paramilitary organizations. None of the unionist members of the new assembly have placed any great stress on this particular point. And few seem to have contemplated the question of legally held weapons. Successive Northern administrations ladled out gun permits to unionists while refusing them to nationalists.
Never miss an issue of The Irish Echo
Subscribe to one of our great value packages.
This is going to be a major sticking point in the implementation of decommissioning. Few unionists will be willing to surrender weapons they hold legally.
There is another huge consideration: What will be done about the RUC?
There are certainly going to be major reforms. But will members remain armed? All of the indications are that it will not be allowed to continue as it has from the earliest days of Northern Ireland. Clearly, it was never a mere peacekeeping force. Instead, in effect, it was, and still is, a sectarian paramilitary body, unlike any other police force within the United Kingdom or the Republic of Ireland.
So, what is going to be done about the arms of the RUC? While that is mainly a question for the reform body, it is also one that will have to occupy the attention of de Chastelain, and, for that matter the Provisional IRA.
The attitude of the IRA and Provisional Sinn Fein is critical. Although Martin McGuinness has been assigned to the decommissioning body, the republican leadership is sticking firmly to its view that the Good Friday Agreement places no obligation on the IRA to begin decommissioning before Sinn Fein is allowed to participate in the Northern Ireland Cabinet.
The republican leadership is perfectly correct, of course. There is no such obligation in writing. But an agreement is not just a skeleton of sentences and paragraphs. It also involves the expression of a particular spirit. The Good Friday Agreement expresses the willingness of all of the signatories to change.
When David Trimble, the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, expressed the hope that the Northern Ireland Assembly will allow for the establishment of a "pluralist government" for a "pluralist people," he was clearly signaling that the old days are over. No longer can Northern Ireland be ruled by a "Protestant parliament" for a "Protestant people."
The will of all of the political parties, with the probable exception of the Democratic Unionist Party, led by the Rev. Ian Paisley, to make the agreement work, will be almost worthless unless there is also a change in spirit.
While Sinn Fein and the leadership of the IRA may be correct in sticking to the literal terms of the Good Friday Agreement, there will also have to be a change in the mindset, as Sen. George Mitchell often emphasized. That will be difficult because it is obvious that republicans wish to see other developments falling into place before they are prepared to make major moves.
But the pieces are falling into place. The removal of troops from the streets of West Belfast and the possibility that bases will also be removed from South Armagh are hugely important. The British government is sending the signals almost daily.
There will have to be some reciprocation from former hard-line republicans, in spirit if not in word. They are faced with major problems in any attempt to do so. There are the problems of the guns in the hands of loyalists and the guns in the highly visible holsters of the RUC, along with those held legally by unionists.
There are also the daunting logistical difficulties.
Most of the weaponry held by the IRA is hidden in private farms and houses throughout the island, especially in the counties along the border. Naturally, mainly IRA sympathizers hide them illegally. Naturally, they do not wish to be known.
Gen. de Chastelain will have to tread lightly through this political and judicial minefield, especially in light of the new, tougher legislation recently carried through both parliaments. But by now, McGuinness and he should have already entered into discussions on the when and the how of it.
There is an impasse to be overcome. The Provisional IRA is hardly going to decommission until the Northern executive is firmly established. David Trimble is going to have to persist in his course despite the serious right wing opposition within the unionist camp. In the meantime, the Provisional IRA and Sinn Fein should also be sending signals in his direction, signals that indicate a real change in their mindset.
Every agreement is a two-way process.