Category: Archive

Editorial Good faith wanting

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

In spite of all the optimism expressed by Irish and British political leaders that a way will be found to resolve the deadlock over decommissioning and the setting up of the new Northern Ireland executive, the deadline for which is only days away, there is a growing sense of unease about the future of the whole peace process.

Just this week, that unease deepened. The British Home Secretary Jack Straw demanded a judicial review of the release of four IRA prisoners due out between now and June. The four men are serving long sentences for bombing offenses in Britain, including the Brighton attack in 1984, which left five dead and came close to wiping out Margaret Thatcher’s entire cabinet. The prisoners had been recently transferred from British prisons to a jail in Northern Ireland and Straw insisted that the matter was a purely technical one.

The demand for the review could not have come at a worse time. British spokesmen insist that it is a legalistic matter, with no political overtones. It is not connected, they insist, with any unhappiness about the IRA’s continued refusal to countenance decommissioning as a precondition for Sinn Fein representatives taking up their seats in the new government. Nor, they say, is it linked to the announcement from the IRA prisoners remaining in jail rejecting decommissioning as a precondition. That Straw’s announcement came on the same day is, apparently, a mere coincidence.

In calling for this review, the British government is either being extremely naive or extremely cynical.

Naive if they think for one moment that such a move will not be seen by the republican movement as a deliberate attempt to apply pressure on the IRA to force them to concede to Unionists’ demands. Cynical if under the guise of a legal review they are in fact attempting to renege on provisions already set in motion as part of the Good Friday peace agreement. For republicans, and perhaps nationalists in general, just when trust and good faith is needed more than ever on all sides, Britain will be viewed as playing its old role of Perfidious Albion.

Coming as it does a week after the murder of human rights lawyer Rosemary Nelson jarred nationalist sensibilities and aroused their concern about the role of the security forces in such killings, the Straw review seriously jeopardizes what frail hopes there were that a compromise would be found between those demanding a surrender of arms and those refusing to even consider it.

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The IRA and Sinn Fein are far from blameless in this sorry state of affairs. There is no doubt about the fact that their insistence on sticking to the letter of the agreement rather than recognizing their broader obligations under it has helped fuel unionist suspicions about their long term aims. Unionists, of course, have not exactly been helpful. Indeed, David Trimble’s intransigence on the issue has turned it into the major obstacle to progress that the peace process has faced since it began over four years ago.

Unionist anger will only have been deepened by the spectacle of IRA men just sentenced to over 400 years in prison for a series of murders joking and laughing at the knowledge that under the terms of the agreement they will walk free in 16 months. But it has offended many people, not only Unionists. It has put the British prime minister, Tony Blair, under pressure from within his own party not to appear like a "patsy," allowing convicted gunmen to show contempt for the courts at the same time that he is seemingly unable to wring a concession from them on the issue of an arms hand-over.

But to try and manipulate the judicial system to score a political point is exactly the wrong approach, playing into the source of the fear and distrust that has all along prevented a resolution of the decommissioning dispute. It has now brought Northern Ireland to the verge of yet another major crisis.

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