The British decision last week to impose direct rule has effectively put the clock back at least to September 1999, when former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell arrived to try to end the persistent squabble over decommissioning that was blocking the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement.
Unionists were then saying "No Guns, No Government." The Mitchell solution — to get political institutions up and running while the chairman of the decommissioning commission, General John de Chastelain, begins meeting with paramilitary representatives to being the disarmament process — would have worked, perhaps, had it been tried. But it was not.
Instead of Mitchell’s program, we had Unionist leader David Trimble’s approach. This consisted of convincing his party to support his entry into government with Sinn Fein by promising that he would resign if the de Chastelain commission did not report by the end of last month that substantial progress had been made. The IRA was effectively given a deadline outside the terms of the agreement, and outside the remit of the Mitchell review. The sorry result is there for all to see: the devolved government suspended, and the IRA withdrawing its interlocutor from the decommissioning talks.
Trimble, and the British, argue that they had reached an understanding with Sinn Fein that progress on decommissioning would be made. It may well have been so. But whatever understanding there might have been was undone when it was converted into a Unionist demand, a demand the republican movement made plain it would not respond to. That is, by December, decommissioning had once more been made into a political issue, thanks to the Ulster Unionist Council, the party’s ruling body, which had exacted that as its price for its leader going into the power-sharing government.
Trimble and the British say that without that price being paid there would not have been a power-sharing government in the first place. This may well be true. If it is, it means that Trimble is too weak to get his party to accept the Good Friday agreement that he signed up to but must continually go outside of its terms of reference, adding on preconditions that will make it palatable to hardline Unionists who have always been opposed to it. If that is the case, and it increasingly looks to be so, then the British and Irish governments will find their latest efforts at reviving the power-sharing government will be doomed to further setbacks and disappointments.
Britain’s role as far as Unionism is concerned is like that of an enabler to an alcoholic. The British believe that for pragmatic reasons, it was essential to save Trimble, there being no other "reasonable" Unionist on the horizon. But how long can they save a leader from his own party? Either Trimble leads the party into the institutions envisioned in the agreement under the terms of the agreement or he does not.
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The IRA’s role has come in for the most criticism, understandably, since it could have prevented the whole collapse by a simple decommissioning gesture. But the IRA have a constituency to protect as much as has Trimble. Once decommissioning became a Unionist hoop through which the IRA had to jump, then that constituency said no. General de Chastelain was there to deal with the issue of decommissioning, not the Ulster Unionist Council.
Unfortunately for the political process, neither the IRA’s constituency — consisting of at most some several hundred members — nor that of the Unionist council, which is 860 strong, are representative of the overwhelming majority of the Irish people who voted for the agreement and who want to see it work.