All agreements bring obligations. But in Northern Ireland, there is a noticeable tendency among the partners to the Good Friday agreement to remind each other of their obligations while conveniently ignoring their own.
So it is that Unionists are forever reminding Sinn Fein of its commitment to bringing about decommissioning while loyalist paramilitaries run rampant with pipe bombs, bursting in the homes of vulnerable Catholics. So it is that Sinn Fein lectures the British government on demilitarization while the IRA sits tight on 100 tons of weapons, ammunition and explosives. So it is that the British hector Sinn Fein on delivering the IRA, while playing footsy with police reform and blaming the Real IRA for the failure to dismantle the watchtowers in South Armagh.
These are all very human failures, of course, since everyone tries to avoid what is difficult to do. But their political consequences can be dire.
By last week it looked as if, due to fudging, stalling and prevarication on the policing, demilitarization and decommissioning issues, the implementation of the Good Friday agreement was going to be seriously compromised, forcing the two governments to put it in the deep freeze until after the next British general election. A last-minute intervention by British Prime Minister Tony Blair, along with his Irish counterpart, Bertie Ahern, on Thursday, March 8, managed somehow, it seems, to prevent this thanks to a round-table talks session involving all those party to the accord. The session was the idea of SDLP leader John Hume, and though attended by great skepticism, it produced some results.
The institutions remain in tact. The IRA has reopened contact with General John de Chastelain the chairman of the decommissioning panel. The British have indicated a willingness to look again at the police reform legislation. As a result, the SDLP is making confident noises that come June the policing issue will be fixed once and for all. Most important, forward momentum has been maintained.
Both Sinn Fein and the SDLP can now plunge into the upcoming election campaign claiming responsibility for not caving in on policing, and giving themselves credit in advance for any future reforms that the British introduce that will be to their liking. Yet, at the same time, the pan-nationalist front remains whole and did not fragment over the policing issue.
Follow us on social media
Keep up to date with the latest news with The Irish Echo
As usual, the danger is on the Unionist side. Will UUP leader David Trimble have enough to go to his constituents and claim significant advances in relation to decommissioning, enough to withstand an assault from the diehards? A lot will depend on what the IRA does next. Something more than a 10-pence phone to the good general will be required. That is one obligation that cannot be avoided.