Category: Archive

Editorial: Winding down the war machine

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

The British government response last week to the Unionists’ demands for more direct action against Sinn Fein for the sins of the IRA was a decided anticlimax, at least as far as David Trimble, the embattled UUP leader, is concerned.

Trimble was clearly not happy with the British Northern Ireland Secretary John Reid’s House of Commons speech last Wednesday, which promised that the government would look seriously at all “substantiated” information about paramilitaries rearming or targeting activities. Reid said he would not hesitate to take action if action were warranted. Unfortunately for Trimble, the only action he promised to take would be to recommend that the assembly pass a motion expelling ministers if they are linked to paramilitary groups who are in violation of their cease-fires. That means Sinn Fein, since it is the only party in power with any links to an illegal organization.

Unionists rolled their eyes in despair since everyone knows the hopelessness of trying to get such a motion through the assembly. It would need a majority of Nationalists members to vote for it — something the Social Democratic and Labor Party would never do unless it has an electoral death wish.

While there is undoubtedly sympathy for the situation in which Trimble finds himself, frustrated by the Good Friday agreement’s political mechanisms, that is the deal to which everyone signed up. It was meant to be a joint community effort, and the structure of the assembly expresses that aspiration.

Meanwhile, among republicans there is he usual kind of outrage at what they perceive, rightly, as the one-sided nature of this controversy. Loyalists are running amok on a nightly basis in Belfast, carrying out serious violence, including murder, and yet the Blair government can issue statements and make speeches not mentioning loyalists once. The Ulster Volunteer Force, whose political wing, the Progressive Unionist Party, has two seats in the assembly, just issued a menacing statement boasting the fact that it was stepping up its rearming, targeting and training procedures. Yet in the continual demands to do something about Sinn Fein, this is quietly forgotten.

The truth is that the Good Friday agreement was reached by postponing the really difficult questions, such as what to do with illegal organizations whose political wings win seats in the assembly and places in government. British Prime Minister Tony Blair last week said that they should be “stood down” — using the paramilitaries own jargon. But he proposed no way of going about this. The reality is, there isn’t one.

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The whole point of the agreement was that it was meant to create the conditions in which such organizations would become irrelevant, and hope that in the long term they would fade away. This does not mean that they should be allowed to bully, racketeer, threaten and strut about the streets as if they owned them. And their political representatives should be in no doubt about this. However, in the meantime, it is a mistake for the Unionists to seize on the continued existence of the IRA as another bogeyman, like Articles 2 and 3 and decommissioning (remember them?), to try to slow political progress. The faster all sides make political progress, the more pressure there will be on the IRA to wind down its war machine in recognition that real change is possible without it.

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