In the wake of President Clinton’s visit to Northern Ireland, old enemies have at last come together — at least to the extent of acknowledging each other as participants in the same process. The Gerry Adams, David Trimble meeting finally took place after so many threats that it would never occur. But it did — albeit in the relatively neutral context of a broader get-together of all the party chiefs.
Brief as it was, it still broke the mold of intransigent refusal to deal with the reality of Sinn Fein’s presence that for years characterized Ulster Unionists’ attitudes toward the unfolding negotiations. Another, and more important one-on-one meeting is scheduled for later this week when both men will at last come face to face. It will be the first such meeting between leaders of Sinn Fein and Ulster Unionism since 1922, when Michael Collins met with James Craig to try and bring an end to the sectarian and political violence that was sweeping Belfast in the wake of the Treaty settlement.
Fortunately, Adams and Trimble are meeting under more propitious circumstances. With a declaration of a complete cessation of what it called — ridiculously enough — "military operations," the so-called Real IRA has joined the real world, alongside the Provisional IRA, the UDA, the UVF, the LVF and, more recently, the INLA. Only the Continuity IRA continues to believe that planting bombs in Protestant villages is somehow fighting a "war" against the British. Whatever continuity they possess it is not that of rational thought.
Propitious circumstances are certainly needed if Trimble and Adams are no make any headway at all through the obstacles that history and their own words and deeds have placed in their path toward agreement and understanding. Trimble will expect some movement on decommissioning from the IRA. Adams will no doubt argue that the appointment of his colleague Martin McGuinness to liaise with the decommissioning body is such a step. But the republican movement cannot postpone beginning the actual, physical destruction of weaponry much longer. If its leaders are as seriously committed to the new settlement, as we think they are, then a gesture in this direction will have to take place between now and the New Year, when the assembly and its executive meets in full session.
Adams will want reassurances that the Unionists are serious about implementing the all-Ireland institutions and the equality agenda that are the pins that hold the republican movement to the settlement. Without them, as without decommissioning, the whole deal could still come undone.
There was a certain irony in the fact that the same week that two old enemies met, people who once called each other friends and comrades had a rather different kind of meeting. The IRA is reported to have visited the homes of up to 60 members of the Real IRA and warned them that they had two weeks to "disband." The IRA, which has hedged so long about decommissioning its own horde of weapons of death and destruction, is clearly not shy about asking others to get rid of theirs. The warning carries a threat of violence. The fact that this is in clear violation of the Mitchell Principles seems to have escaped a lot of people, including the Irish government, which has been unusually quiet on the matter. Likewise, the usual indignation from Unionists was also absent. Indeed, the very fact that within days of the threats being made Trimble went ahead with his meeting with Adams is telling in itself.
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While recent days have demonstrated once more how the Northern Ireland peace process has broken one mold after another, this example of IRA intimidation has also reminded us that a few hardened habits remain. They are the habits acquired in the culture of violence, which have got to vanish if the peace settlement is to take root. They will not vanish if people ignore those swaggering gunmen whom it is politically expedient to ignore while getting self-righteously indignant about others.