The news that the British government is extending the remit of the decommissioning body until February 2002 must be seen in a much broader context than that of the failure of the paramilitaries to deliver on the matter of arms.
The extra eight months are needed to sort out the remaining problems, not just with arms — there remain outstanding issues with demilitarization and policing, all of which are intertwined if not in the actual terms of the agreement (where there is no linkage, say, between decommissioning and reform of the police) but in the reality of the politics of the North. However, the move is more than just a recognition of the complexities and difficulties that exist. It is a telling indication that both London and Dublin are steadfast in their determination not to allow this opportunity to resolve the Northern Ireland problem to slip through their fingers.
Many predicted that this is what would happen, and that faced with the upcoming British general election, London would suspend the agreement, conceding the field to the anti-agreement forces. But it is becoming ever clearer that far from allowing things to stand still, both governments are ensuring that the momentum toward change will not slacken. Recent moves, including this one, will build confidence in the agreement ‘s supporters, and create a real hope that in the post-election period real progress can be made.
Still, the potential for disaster over the coming weeks must not be minimized. David Trimble, the first minister and leader of the Ulster Unionists, goes into the election still vulnerable from rejectionist Unionists who will scoff at recent moves. Supporters of the agreement, especially Sinn Fein, should not be cavalier about his fate. Without him, the hope of making the agreement work will prove immensely more difficult, if not impossible.
Of course, if the paramilitaries had delivered on decommissioning, Trimble would win easily, and the extension would not have been needed. But the problem with decommissioning was that though part of the Good Friday agreement, it was never spelled out just exactly what would constitute "delivery." The vagueness, or creative ambiguity, if you prefer, was necessary, to allow everybody to sign on to the deal. But sign on they did, including the republican movement. London has now surely demonstrated a faith in the agreement, and in those who, like Sinn Fein, support it, that should be reciprocated with a courageous gesture. There may well be a time for creative ambiguity. There is also a time for clarity, and it is fast approaching.