So far, 1999 has brought little in the way of political progress in Northern Ireland. Quite the opposite. It offers a depressing, repetitive controversy that continues to bedevil local politics.
David Trimble, first minister-elect and Ulster Unionist Party leader, has been indulging his favorite tick, scratching away compulsively, it seems, day after day, at the itch of decommissioning. And like most behavior of an obsessive-compulsive nature, it has destructive potential.
Already, the IRA has issued a ominous statement reminding us of what happened the last time decommissioning rose to the top of the political agenda. It brought about the end of the first cease-fire and could have meant the collapse of the entire peace process.
The one sure way of not getting the IRA to decommission is to publicly demand it, as Trimble has been doing, in speech after speech, even using the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony last month as a platform.
Why then is Trimble so insistent? Has he never heard the old adage about history repeating itself?
Some observers have begun to ask that if the Unionists really want decommissioning to happen, why do they go about it in the very manner that will guarantee that it won’t come about? Some have come to the conclusion that they are not so much interested in disarming the paramilitaries as they are in keeping Sinn Fein out of the executive seats to which it is entitled in the new assembly. The decommissioning issue is simply the best excuse they have at the moment, being a precondition that they know will never be granted.
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Since the peace process started in 1994, Unionists have imposed one obstacle after another between them and prospect of sitting down with republicans. Their current stance on decommissioning seems like a continuation of that behavior. It is a refusal to accept the new circumstances under which Northern Ireland will be administered.
Recently, Britain’s Northern Ireland secretary of state, Mo Mowlam, has said that Sinn Fein is right when it insists, in reply to Trimble, that there is nothing in the Good Friday agreement that mandates the handing over of weapons before the party can assume its positions in the executive. She does say, however, that it would help matters along if the IRA offered a token gesture. But that will not happen as a result of the Unionist leader’s harangues, which will only postpone the day all people of Ireland look forward: when the gun and the bomb are things of the past.
Unfortunately, it now seems that before that day can dawn, someone is going to have to decommission David Trimble.