The struggle for progress in Northern Ireland has now entered a new phase, one that was symbolized dramatically two weeks ago when Ulster Unionist chief David Trimble met Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams face to face. So it is alarming to see it bedeviled by an old problem — that of decommissioning.
This blast from the past is developing into something of a crisis. Various members of the Ulster Unionist Party are threatening to refuse to sit alongside Sinn Fein representatives when they take their seats on the shadow executive — the assembly’s ruling body, which has to be constituted by Oct. 31.
The resurrection of decommissioning is hardly surprising, given that Trimble told the Unionist Party back in June that it would have to be resolved before Sinn Fein members would be allowed into the shadow executive. That was not a wise thing to say, since Trimble knew that the terms of the Good Friday Agreement say nothing about the decommissioning of paramilitary weapons being a precondition that has to be met before those appointed to fill the 10 ministerial posts on the shadow executive are allowed to take their positions. It was the beginning of a process whereby the Ulster Unionist leader has painted himself into a corner.
Between 1995 and 1997, the British government of John Major in effect did the same thing, over the same issue, with disastrous results for the peace process. Then, as now, the making of a crisis had as much to do with internal politics as it had with any objective consideration of the issue. Then, it was to do with Major playing for Unionist support in parliament. Today, it has a lot to do with Trimble trying to win back the support of Jeffrey Donaldson, the young tiger of the party, who stalked out of the negotiations last April because he could not get a commitment from the two governments that they would insist on prior decommissioning before allowing Sinn Fein into the executive. It is also, possibly, a way of putting pressure on Sinn Fein to push the IRA leadership down the road along that the Unionists would like to see it go.
Let there be no misunderstanding, no one is suggesting that the IRA should not go down the road that will lead them to getting rid of the weapons of destruction. All the people of Northern Ireland, nationalist as well as unionist, expect the shadow of the gunman to be removed from their lives, whether he be a republican gunman, a loyalist gunman or a British soldier. That, after all, is one of the things the peace process is about. Without the removal of this sinister shadow, there can be no meaningful political process.
However, some business is best done quietly, away from the glare of the political spotlight and the blare of the megaphone. Decommissioning is a striking example. For Trimble, it would be better to quietly talk up what the republican movement has already done than make public demands about what it has yet to do. A cease-fire that remains intact after 15 months, a representative has been dispatched to liaise with the decommissioning body, there has been a forceful condemnation of the Omagh bombing, and a statement from Adams that comes close to saying that the war is over for good. These are things that can be built on by reasonable people whose minds are concentrated on the same objective — making this settlement work for the benefit of all the people of Ireland.
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Trimble’s problem should not be underestimated, of course. The Unionist Party is in a fragile condition. It has already effectively split over the Good Friday Agreement. But those threatening another disruption should spell out to their followers where it is exactly they intend to lead them: up the garden path, and into another cul-de-sac.