By Anne Cadwallader
STORMONT — Northern Ireland’s political leaders are believed to be creeping toward a long-awaited breakthrough in the intractable deadlock over IRA decommissioning.
There have been no dramatic announcement on the steps of Stormont, but a series of conciliatory statements and briefings from former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, Canadian Gen. John de Chastelain and UUP and Sinn Féin party leaders suggest that agreement is now as much about choreography as substance. The hope is that the proposed power-sharing executive may be up and running in the next few weeks, possibly by the beginning of December.
The political developments should result in the IRA nominating a link-man to the International Commission on Decommissioning, which, according to de Chastelain, its chairman, is to become more centrally involved in the process.
No timetable for decommissioning paramilitary weapons has been set down — nor is there any explicit promise or guarantee of IRA disarming in the deal or in the statements made this week by republicans, although publicly the Ulster Unionist Party says it expects actual "product" to be destroyed.
A statement from the IRA itself is expected by mid-week followed by what will be Mitchell’s final report. The IRA is expected to name a go-between to the decommissioning body.
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Sometime in December, de Chastelain would issue an interim report confirming that the IRA had appointed an interlocutor and that agreement had been reached on how disarming would occur.
In January, de Chastelain would issue a second report saying that IRA decommissioning had begun. If, however, the General is unable to confirm the start of the process, then the executive and the cross-border bodies would be wound up.
However, huge hurdles remain before the deal can be achieved, not least being the implacable opposition to it from anti-agreement unionists within, and outside, the Ulster Unionist Party.
And Sinn Féin negotiator Alex Maskey said that weekend media speculation about actual IRA disarming beginning in January had been very unhelpful and was untrue. He said Sinn Féin is not in any position to negotiate on behalf of the IRA.
In a statement issued Tuesday, the UUP leader, David Trimble, voiced sentiments that could have come from the pen of the SDLP leader, John Hume. Trimble spoke of the equal rights of nationalists and the legitimacy of their aspiration to a united Ireland.
Trimble said the setting up of the political institutions proposed in the Good Friday agreement, and the beginning of "the process of decommissioning" together would be the first steps in putting the past behind.
By using the word "process," Trimble has significantly shifted from his previous demand that actual weapons be handed over before the setting up of the power-sharing executive.
Trimble didn’t say so directly, but his next sentence clearly meant that if the IRA responds to yesterday’s statement from the International Commission on Decommissioning, by nominating an interlocutor, the way will be clear to set up the power-sharing executive, the all-Ireland Ministerial Council and the cross-border implementation bodies.
The language of Trimble’s statement was also significant, accepting the equal rights of nationalists and unionists and acknowledging past failures to accept differing expressions of cultural identity and the legitimacy of nationalist aspirations for a united Ireland.
In his statement, also made Tuesday and within two hours of the Trimble speech, Sinn Féin’s president, Gerry Adams, said decommissioning is an essential part of the peace process and all parties to the Good Friday Agreement are under an obligation to bring it about.
Adams said that Sinn Féin is committed to pursue its objectives by peaceful and democratic means. He said Sinn Féin believes decommissioning can be satisfactorily and finally resolved under the ‘gis of the de Chastelain commission, but only on a voluntary basis.
He committed the party to pursue its objectives by peaceful means and said it opposes any use of force, or threat of force, by others for any political purpose.
If all goes well, it is assumed Mitchell would put his imprimatur on the deal later this week. He made an interim report to the parties and the press on Monday, saying that during the course of his more than 10-week-long review of the stalled Good Friday peace agreement, the parties had engaged with one another in an unprecedented manner.
"I believe that the parties now understand each other’s concerns and requirements far better than before and are committed to resolving the current impasse," he said.
It had become "common ground" on all sides that decommissioning had to be achieved ‘as quickly as possible,’ " he said. To encourage this, the report being prepared by the decommissioning body would be made public.
Decision time for UUP
Trimble is likely to call a meeting of his 900-member Ulster Unionist Council on Nov. 27. It will be up to this all-important body to ultimately decide if the party will support the deal worked out at Stormont.
Ulster Unionist MP Jeffrey Donaldson said that the party’s leadership would face a backlash if it accepts what is on the table. The UUP deputy leader, John Taylor also restated his opposition to any deal being struck with Sinn Féin until decommissioning has begun.
Trimble said on Sunday that "the process will sink or swim by what Adams and McGuinness say over the next few days. They have to assure people by their statements that the actions promised by the IRA will happen."
Trimble was reported to have admitted that he will delay taking any proposals to his party’s ruling council until after he "assesses the commitment" of Sinn Féin and the IRA to the actual handing over of explosives and guns.
He said he still "hadn’t made his mind up" on the proposals, and felt the talks process still had "some way to go." He hoped that over the next four days, "clearer thinking" would emerge on both sides.
Speaking on television on Sunday, Ulster Unionist party negotiator Ken Maginnis referred to the need for the three governments — including the U.S. government — to "underwrite" the deal.
"We are up against it," he said. "David Trimble has been a courageous leader, but he is not foolhardy. He is not going to try to carry something which is ultimately going to end in defeat.
"It really will depend on the extent to which the two governments, our own and Dublin and indeed, to a degree, President Clinton, who has taken an interest, are prepared to unequivocally underwrite what we are being promised."
Sir Reg Empey of the UUP said Ulster Unionists recognized the "challenges and difficulties" faced by the leadership of "Sinn Fein-IRA."
"Nevertheless, we call on them to respond positively to this process and to state clearly their commitment to achieving decommissioning," Empey said. "If unionism is to deliver an inclusive executive, republicanism must deliver decommissioning. Both sides must demonstrate in word and deed their commitment to these issues, respectively, if the agreement is to work."