Every interested party and faction, bar one, was in agreement. The two governments, the White House, Sinn Fein, the SDLP, the Alliance Party — even the Ulster Unionists — acknowledged that something desperately significant had just happened.
General John de Chastelain, joined by his two colleagues Andrew Sens and Tauno Nimenin and two respected clergymen, Harold Good and Alec Reid, confirmed that he personally oversaw the decommissioning of IRA weapons in their “totality.”
He said that estimates of the IRA arsenal, provided by the British and Irish security services (and unseen by the IRA) tallied with the amount of weaponry delivered up by republicans. He spoke at length of his belief that, as far as republican guns are concerned, is over.
Good and Reid backed this up in a joint statement. They said that they had seen the putting beyond use of weapons with their own eyes and were satisfied that the IRA no longer possessed the weaponry to carry out armed struggle.
While reporters may have probed de Chastelain with questions about the serial codes on some of the hand-guns or proffered philosophical inquiries as to whether he could ever truly know if all the weapons were gone, the political establishments warmly embraced the news.
De Chastelain had briefed them earlier in the day on the extent of the decommissioning process, reassuring them that the IRA had done what was required of it.
Over at DUP headquarters things were decidedly downbeat. Following a pre-prepared script, DUP leader Ian Paisley, flanked by Peter Robinson and Nigel Dodds, dismissed the entire event as the “falsehood of the century.” The DUP’s denunciations of treachery sat uneasily with the prevailing mood of the day.
The DUP has never felt uncomfortable going against the grain and the tone of Paisley’s press conference was widely expected. However, it will be lost on few that, for the first time in a long time, the DUP is alone in its protestations.
Whereas Sinn Fein found itself in the cold house earlier this year — shunned by Dublin, berated by London, abandoned by the SDLP — it has successfully charted a path out of political oblivion. It now lines up with the British and Irish governments. Any lingering doubts that may have followed the IRA statement on July 28 have now been banished. Even Irish Justice Minister Michael McDowell has been forced to concede that republicans have delivered on their promises.
While the DUP will try to ignore it, pressure will build over the next six months for the party to move. Republicans have reclaimed the political high ground and the DUP will find it difficult to win support for its contention that the IRA, in league with the two governments and de Chastelain, has hoodwinked the unionist people.
Its central problem lies with the fact that, despite claims that the “majority? of people in North do not believe de Chastelain,” the men with whom the DUP must now negotiate are happy that the IRA has gone out of business.
Instructive was the performance of Irish foreign affairs minister Dermot Ahern on RTE’s Questions and Answers on Monday night. Whereas Ahern has disappointed nationalists with his response to loyalist attacks on vulnerable Catholics in the North, he nonetheless had little time for the DUP’s Maurice Morrow on the program. He made it clear to the DUP man that the ball was now firmly in his party’s court.
Only nine months ago, Ahern and his government had supported the DUP’s call for photographs of decommissioned IRA weapons. In the months that followed the Irish government adopted the DUP line again in calling for the effective disbandment of the IRA before Sinn Fein could be admitted into talks about power sharing.
However Ahern was visibly bothered with Morrow’s refusal to accept the word of de Chastelain. That brief period in which Irish government concerns overlapped with the DUP agenda is now most definitely over.
The British government is meanwhile delighted with De Chastelain’s report. It comes in conference week for Tony Blair’s Labor Party. Presuming Blair sticks to his agreement to demilitarize the North, then the British army will soon complete moves to wrap up its spy-posts and barracks.
The DUP shows no signs of relenting on this matter in the near future. Paisley met with de Chastelain yesterday. He emerged to say that he was even less confident that IRA decommissioning had happened than he was beforehand.
Paisley’s contention that he is yet to be convinced of decommissioning is, however, falling on deaf ears. He has studiously ignored de Chastelain’s statement that the weapons disposed of matched up with secret British and Irish estimates, instead focusing on the throwaway remark that de Chastelain cannot be sure that every IRA gun or explosive was gotten rid off.
Republicans claim the DUP leader is playing with words. For years his party has accepted without question the estimates of the IRA arsenal provided by the British security forces.
It has also aired questionable intelligence about republicans in the House of Commons — information that originated from the very same people who assisted de Chastelain in his decommissioning work. Sinn Fein claims Paisley cannot pick and choose who he wants to believe depending on what they are saying.
Whether the two governments, backed by the White House, are prepared to allow Paisley to continue in this vein will become clear very soon.