By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN — After months of stagnation, the pace of the implementation of the Good Friday agreement intensified this week with a hectic series of changes planned that will bring about the most fundamental shakeup in the political landscape since the foundation of the state.
If power is devolved from London to Belfast as planned, a historic Irish cabinet meeting in Dublin on Thursday will make an irreversible declaration bringing into effect the scrapping of the controversial Articles 2 and 3 of Ireland’s constitution.
Taoiseach Bertie Ahern said that even if the peace deal and new executive in Belfast collapses in the event the IRA does not decommission weapons, the constitutional changes will remain.
"They will be gone forever," Ahern said. "I have long made up my mind that the new wording is the reflection of our aspiration of how we see these things in the future, regardless."
However, the taoiseach said he is confident there will be decommissioning. "I am quite satisfied that the decommissioning of arms and all of the armaments will happen," he said. "How, when, in what circumstances I do not know."
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The taoiseach said that unless the republican movement wants to "create for us all an awful lot of headaches, they know what has to happen."
Following the decision to call another meeting of the Ulster Unionist Council in February, Ahern said he "hated" the issue of deadlines being laid down because so far in the peace process not one of them had been met.
"It is not that it is not a good idea to put deadlines, but we haven’t met one, so we have to be very careful," he said.
He added that the head of the international body on decommissioning, Canadian General John de Chastelain, knew the issue "inside out and upside down."
"So I do not think we have to have an enormous intellectual and ideological discussion about what is at issue," he said.
Introduced in the 1937 Constitution, Articles 2 and 3 have traditionally been strongly supported by nationalists and republicans but have angered unionists.
Article 2 claims the national territory of the Republic consists of the "whole island of Ireland, its islands and the territorial seas" and Article 3 aspires to reunification of the island.
The peace agreement changes would make reunification contingent on consent and change the definition of the country from it’s territory to its people.
The taoiseach said the constitutional changes had been "sold" for the new cross-border bodies.
"We will start to deal with issues of importance on this island on an all-island basis," Ahern said, "not on any takeover, not on any argumentative basis, but because working together on these issues is the best way of doing it."
Foreign Affairs Minister David Andrews and Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Mandelson will sign the new British-Irish agreement in Dublin on Thursday.
Immediately afterward, the taoiseach will sign the orders enabling the establishment of the all-Ireland North-South ministerial council and the cross-border implementation bodies.
The North-South ministerial council is expected to hold its first meeting in Armagh in mid-December. It will have a permanent secretariat and meet at least twice a year at summit level — with Ahern and Northern Ireland First Minister David Trimble attending — and more regularly at ministerial level.
A considerable boost to cross-border cooperation is expected to come with setting up the six North-South implementation bodies covering policy issues in trade, waterways, fisheries, food safety and EUP programs.
Each implementation body will have a chief executive — three each from North and South — and a management team.
Cooperation will also be intensified through existing bodies on education, agriculture, environment, health, tourism and transport.
There will also be a British-Irish Council representing the Irish and British governments and representatives of the devolved institutions in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales as well as the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands.
A new British-Irish intergovernmental conference will subsume both the Anglo-Irish intergovernmental conference and the intergovernmental conference established in 1985 as part of the "Hillsborough" Anglo-Irish Agreement.
It is also envisioned there will be a joint committee of the two Human Rights Commissions from the North and the South.
The Northern Ireland assembly and the Oireachtas are also consider developing a joint parliamentary forum.
Consideration will also be given to setting up an independent consultative forum about by the administrations in Belfast and Dublin.
It would represent civil servants, employers, trade unions and others with expertise in social, cultural and economic matters.