The announcement from the IRA this week that it had carried out another act of decommissioning was timely in more ways than one. It happened just days before the fourth anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. In the years between then and now, decommissioning haunted the agreement like a malevolent ghost, scaring away all attempts at making progress. The lack of it was used by the enemies of the agreement to prove that the republican movement was not sincere about its commitment to peace and that therefore the agreement itself was a farce, one that should be abandoned. Pro-agreement Unionists found their position eroding away as the years went by and their opponents turned decommissioning into an anti-agreement mantra.
Meanwhile the IRA viewed the issue as one used by its opponents whom it accused of pushing decommissioning as a synynom for surrender. Republicans reacted accordingly, hardening their own intransigence.
Even the IRA’s first act of putting its weapons beyond use, which occurred on October 23 last year, did not satisfy some, who derided it as a sop to the gullible. But the second time round, involving what John de Chastelain the chairman of the International Independent Commission on Decommissioning described as a “substantial” amount of weapons, ammunition and explosives, a decommissioning move has made it harder if not impossible for the anti-agreement parties to sustain their line that this is all an IRA joke.
Indeed, this means that though the IRA’s action of last year was – correctly – described as “historic”, the latest action is even more important. It confirms that the oldest guerrilla organization in Western Europe is engaged in the process of decommissioning, and that October 2001 was not just a gesture to appease critics in the US in the wake of the terrorist attacks here on 9.11, as had been suggested by some Unionists and other detractors of the Good Friday Agreement.
Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams called for a generous response to the act and for “an end to meanness. It is time for an end to mean spiritedness.” Unfortunately, as far as the more hard line Unionists are concerned, the plea will fall on fallow ground. For them the earth will always be flat, and the photographs of the beautiful blue globe taken from space have all clearly been staged in a Hollywood studio.
In its statement, the IRA said that it had carried out the move “so that the peace process can be stabilized, sustained and strengthened”. Political rivals south of the border may bridle at this, and regard it merely as a cynical ploy to win votes. While the vote-winning appeal of decommissioning to the southern electorate is open to doubt, the IRA’s assertion is not. It will immeasurably stabilize and strengthen the peace process and whether or not Sinn Fein garners votes in the Irish general election as a result will in the end be of little relevance.