Category: Archive

Editorial: The Gordian Knot

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

Next week is the fourth anniversary of “D-Day” for the Northern Ireland peace process. That is, the day in 1995 when the then Northern Ireland Secretary of State Sir Patrick Mayhew introduced decommissioning as a necessary step that the paramilitaries had to take before their representatives would be allowed into the all-party talks. He did so during a visit to Washington. On March 7, Mayhew announced that there were three steps that the IRA and Sinn FTin must take before being admitted: an agreement in principle to disarm, an agreement on how to go about it, and a token gesture as a confidence building measure.

Sinn FTin, the Irish government and the SDLP were caught by surprise. At no point during the behind-the-scenes-talks between the IRA and the British, which had gone on from about 1990 to 1993, had decommissioning been brought forward as an obstacle, though it had been mentioned. Less than a year later, the first IRA cease-fire collapsed and the peace process was put in jeopardy, largely as a result of the failure to resolve the decommissioning issue.

It had become the Gordian knot of the Northern Ireland peace process. The inability to untie it blocked the path to all-party talks.

Four years later, it is blocking the path to the creation of a new Northern Ireland executive.

As the March 10 deadline approaches for the British government to devolve powers to the new executive, people are yet again desperately trying to untie the decommissioning knot.

Legend has it that when Alexander the Great looked at the Gordian knot, he took out his sword and sliced through it. When Tony Blair became Prime Minister in May 1997, he did something similar in relation to decommissioning. He declared that following another IRA cease-fire, within six weeks Sinn FTin could join the all-party talks. Thus, by cutting through the decommissioning problem he allowed the talks process to gain the necessary momentum to bring about the Good Friday Agreement less than seven months later.

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Decommissioning has once more halted the momentum. Is it possible now to cut through it as decisively as Blair did 18 months ago without losing the Ulster Unionists?

Sinn FTin and the IRA have already met one of Mayhew’s three demands. By signing up to the Good Friday Agreement, Sinn FTin has in principle accepted the need to disarm. That in turn implies a will to work out the modalities of disarmament, which in itself would not be very difficult. The agreement has committed the paramilitaries to have completed disarmament by the summer of 2000. Something which has an end must logically have a beginning. The question is when to begin the beginning without loosing face?

One possible solution would be “mutual blinking.” The British would devolve powers, and the executive would legally come into being at the same time as the paramilitaries offer a token gesture. No one would have actually taken their seats so the Unionists could say they did not sit in government with an armed political party, while Sinn FTin could say that the agreement was implemented with an executive legally established in which they have assigned seats, without an IRA surrender beforehand. Better to fudge it than to allow Gordian knot to strangle the agreement.

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