The results this week in Northern Ireland are encouraging for those who voted for the Good Friday peace agreement and have yet to see their wishes implemented. One veteran commentator dubbed the flurry of conciliatory statements as "half a breakthrough." But half a breakthrough is better than none. Former Sen. George Mitchell’s statement and that of Gen. John de Chastelain, the head of the decommissioning body, have lain the basis for significant progress to be made.
Most crucially, all the statements that were issued on Monday and Tuesday show an acceptance from every side of the requirement to meet the needs of the other and a willingness to accommodate the fears and insecurities of those once viewed as implacably hostile.
In particular, the statements from Sinn Fein and the Ulster Unionist Party have demonstrated that at last an understanding has been built up between them. Sinn Fein accepts the need for a commitment to democratic means, explicitly endorsing decommissioning and an end to all forms of political violence, including so-called punishment beatings.
The Ulster Unionists accept the need to set up devolved government as soon as possible, with institutions that will allow republicans and nationalists to pursue their goal of a united Ireland through democratic means.
The IRA statement, meanwhile, is expected to name a representative to liase with de Chastelain’s decommissioning body. In addition, it is thought that it will back up the statement of the Sinn Fein leadership, effectively committing itself to abandoning political violence for good.
This has been the IRA’s intention at least since the early 1990s. It is now hoped that, if things go as planned, and the institutions envisioned by the Good Friday agreement are up and running, the context in which we can rid Ireland of the gun and the bomb will be created.
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Statements are one thing, of course, mere forms of words. Political acts are another, infinitely more difficult to bring about. Good deeds will have to follow hard on the good words if the momentum that has been generated is to be sustained into the New Year and the new millennium.
The hurdles that lie ahead are many and cannot be underestimated after 30 years of sectarian and political violence. The principle one exists on the Unionist side. And it is one that will have to be faced very soon, when the UUP leader, David Trimble, confronts those in his party who have been following his slogan "no guns, no government" and who might want to challenge him for his acceptance of the present compromise.
A few months ago, this would have been a disheartening scenario. But in the intervening period it has become apparent that the so-called "No-men" have really no strategic alternative to the Good Friday agreement and the deal now on offer. Nor is there in the Unionist Party a serious contender for Trimble’s role. No one commands his intellectual or legal acumen. John Taylor, his deputy, is something of a joke — an unreliable, unpredictable maverick who is to political leadership what joyriding is to driving a car. If Trimble can secure acceptance of his position, and most observers think he can, then by early December it is possible that devolved government, with the cross-border institutions and power-sharing executive, can come into being at last. This would indeed be a wonderful Christmas present for the people of Ireland, North and South.
If any one has played the role of Father Christmas in this scenario it is surely George Mitchell. Once more, the former senator, who has been patiently chairing the review of the process since September, has made the difference. Perhaps the major reason why the attempt to unsnarl the decommissioning dispute has produced results this time when it failed in July is that Mitchell has been able to facilitate negotiations in a way that London and Dublin could not. Last summer, Sinn Fein and the UUP negotiated with the governments but only talked to each other. With Mitchell acting as a neutral referee, they were instead forced to negotiate with each other. And from this engagement came an understanding of each other’s position, and –crucially — a certain amount of trust.
Mitchell’s conduct of the review has been a lesson in the art of politics, firmly grounded in the reality of compromise. It is a lesson that one hopes the participants in the peace process have taken to heart, for without it there can be no hope of progress.