Peering into the abyss has become Northern Ireland’s favorite pastime, if we are to go by the recurring cycle of crisis after crisis that has marked the peace process since it began in 1994. Most of those crises have been generated by the same issue: paramilitary arms decommissioning, primarily by the IRA.
They have been characterized by Unionist impatience with the lack of action on the issue and republican insistence that action can only be taken within the defined terms of the Good Friday agreement and cannot come about as a result of "threats" from any quarter.
The present crisis is no exception. David Trimble, the hard-pressed Ulster Unionist Party leader, says he is going to resign on July 1 if the IRA has not begun to decommission by that date. This week, talks in London became recriminatory, apparently when instead of showing signs of movement in response to this demand, Sinn Fein pressed for concessions on policing reform and demilitarization. A clearly angered Trimble told waiting journalists he had lost all patience on the matter.
One observer likened the situation to a scene in the movie "Reservoir Dogs" where a group of gangsters stand in a circle each with a gun to the head of the other. Except in this case, Trimble has a gun to his own head.
The linking of one issue to another, whether it be decommissioning in exchange for policing reform and demilitarization, or vice versa, in fact goes against the spirit of the agreement signed by all the parties who are currently deadlocked in this dispute. There should be no linkage between policing reform and decommissioning, nor should there be a link between demilitarization and decommissioning. Each should stand on its own as worth doing in its own right. They were not included in the agreement as bargaining chips. But, unfortunately, that is what they have become, at a great disservice to all those who eagerly backed the agreement.
Policing reform is necessary in and of itself, as are the other two demands. Their collective aim was to create something like a normal society in the North that would allow all sides to this rancorous dispute to work together and create the trust that is so lacking.
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The British should demilitarize forthwith. The IRA should decommission likewise. Police reform should meet the needs of all sides of the community. That is, someone is going to have to take the first step, the first act of trust, and put down the gun, following the above analogy.
Sinn Fein and the republican movement have now the most powerful mandate it has had in many, many years. They can act from a position of strength, not weakness, by moving forward on the decommissioning issue. The IRA committed itself to putting weapons verifiably beyond use in May 2000. Now is the logical time to do it. Sinn Fein in particular should welcome the opportunity to rid itself of this tin can that has been tied to its tail for so long
It is not the time to deepen the crisis by turning commitments into bargaining chips. For all sides, including the British and Unionist, this demeans the aim and intent of the Good Friday agreement.