Category: Archive

Editorial Crunch time in D.C.

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

This time a year ago, skeptics were saying that it was ridiculously optimistic to expect that the Northern Ireland problem would be resolved and an agreement reached before the April 9 deadline that both governments had set. In the end, of course, agreement was in fact reached. Though it came one day late, the Good Friday peace accord was — and still is — a remarkable achievement. Indeed, it made possible a whole raft of reforms and initiatives, nearly all of which, after Monday’s signing of four treaties that set up important institutions, are now in place.

Taken together, the changes of the last 11 months are impressive, though each step forward has seemingly been overshadowed by the obstacles that remain. Still, it is impossible to overlook the profound nature of these developments: prisoners have been released on a steady basis, a Northern Ireland human rights commission is being set up, a commission investigating the future of the Royal Ulster Constabulary is working away and aims to present its recommendations by the end of next summer, agreement has been reached on the structure and scope of the new institutions that will govern Northern Ireland, including the cross-border bodies, the Anglo-Irish conference, the Dublin-Belfast council of ministers, and the departments within the new Executive itself.

Admittedly, the progress has been slow, sometimes painfully so. But it has been made. It might have been enough progress for Irish people all over the world to celebrate this St. Patrick’s Day with a little extra zest (if that is imaginable) knowing that the foundations for a peaceful settlement in the North are poured deeply enough for meaningful institutions to be build on them — institutions reflecting the diversity of the North’s different traditions and guaranteeing them respect and security. Unfortunately, that is not yet possible, because of an old and recurring problem that has dogged this process for five years.

Because of the parties’ failure to agree over the decommissioning of paramilitary arms, the deadline for the establishment of the new institutions — March 10 — has been abandoned by the British government. The Northern Ireland secretary of state, Mo Mowlam, has moved it forward to the Monday before Good Friday — the first anniversary of the eponymous agreement that was signed on that date in 1988.

This is not the first time that a deadline has been missed since the parties to the agreement began the difficult job of putting its provisions into effect. But this "slippage" is potentially more serious than the others that went before it. Already Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein has given it the status of a disaster.

As always, it is a case of the hardest problem being left to the last.

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Sinn Fein and the IRA are still saying no to the demand by David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist leader and first minister, that the Provos begin handing over or destroying weapons before Sinn Fein representatives are allowed to take their seats in the new Executive. UUP representatives remain adamant that they will not be part of any Executive that includes Sinn Fein while the decommissioning process has not yet had a credible beginning.

All the arguments have been gone over again and again. It is really a question of the letter of the agreement vs. its spirit.

Sinn Fein is correct when it says that there is nothing written in the agreement that actually says that decommissioning must begin before its members may take their seats. But the Unionists are equally correct when they argue that the whole spirit of the agreement requires decommissioning. After all, it has a date for completion, May 2000, and, therefore, they argue, it must have a start.

The agreement would not have been possible in the first place were it not for the fact that all sides wanted to take the gun out of Irish politics — from the hands of loyalist as well as from republican paramilitaries. There is no dispute about this. This is the goal to which everything tends and it is something upon which everyone, including the vast majority of the people of Northern Ireland, can agree.

Perhaps in the political atmosphere of Northern Ireland, fraught as it is with mistrust, this is too easily forgotten. That’s why next week’s St. Patrick’s Day festivities in Washington, D.C., offer such a unique and vital opportunity. The major players in the Northern debate are all scheduled to be there, as, of course, will President Clinton, who did so much to bring the sides together to create last year’s historic agreement. Perhaps a visit to Washington will afford all the participants a chance to see things in a broader perspective. Maybe with that, aided by a healthy dose of good old American pragmatism, what has been hailed as the miracle of the Good Friday agreement can be repeated.

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