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Editorial Taking risks for peace

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

Though there was no dramatic breakthrough during President Clinton’s visit last week to Ireland, most observers agree that he did give new momentum to the search for a way out of the current impasse. At least he summed up what has to be done to prevent the political structures in Northern Ireland from collapsing.

In effect, Clinton said the British have to make a serious move toward demilitarization.

In addition, the IRA has to engage with the Independent International Body on Decommissioning with a view to making a serious move toward placing its arms beyond use.

And move must also be made to make sure that the new police service in Northern Ireland is made acceptable to nationalist opinion.

If such moves are forthcoming, the crisis over the ban imposed by the Unionist leader David Trimble on Sinn Fein’s two ministers would be avoided before January and the next meeting of the Ulster Unionist Council is upon us, and with it the potential for political disaster.

In the wake of Clinton’s departure, there were modest but still hopeful signs that something was afoot. The Irish taoiseach, Bertie Ahearn, has been in touch on several occasions with the British prime minister, Tony Blair. They have admitted that there are difficulties that remain unresolved. But they seemed to have agreed that this time, if something is to be done, it must be something big enough to convince everyone about the seriousness of their intent to implement the Good Friday peace agreement once and for all.

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Instead of sequencing, it has been suggested that gestures involving demilitarization and decommissioning be carried out together. Such a dramatic development would lift the agreement out of the doldrums into which it has drifted.

The British government, however, is balking at requests that it dismantle some of its watchtowers in South Armagh. It cites security concerns stemming from the activities of recalcitrant republican groups such as the Real IRA, which was responsible for the murder of 29 people in Omagh in August 1998.

No doubt those concerns are genuine. The Real IRA has become active again over the last year. Only a week ago it carried out an attempted bombing in Belfast city center. It may well have been behind the recent murder in North Belfast of a Protestant taxi driver, which many see as a cynical attempt to spark off sectarian conflict. As well, it has been held responsible a series of small-scale but potentially lethal attacks in London.

The prime minister has indicated that he does not want to risk the lives of members of the security forces in South Armagh (or anywhere else, for that matter) by weakening their ability to effectively monitor what is going on around them.

However, by refusing to demilitarize, the British are, in effect, playing into the hands of the hardliners about whom they say they are so concerned. After all, what better proof can the Real IRA have that the peace process is failing than by pointing at the never-ending presence of the hated watchtowers? What more compelling recruiter for intractable policies can you have got than that? The stronger the Real IRA becomes, the more likely it is that there will be further violence and more deaths — the very thing the British say they are trying to avoid.

The British argument is, therefore, a self-defeating one, since it undermines the hope of political progress — the very basis on which deaths can be avoided.

Demilitarization is a risky business. But doing nothing is even riskier. If people must take risks, surely it is better that they do so shoring up the peace process than following a misguided policy that will only in the end serve to undermine it.

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