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Republicans warn political context may have vanished

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Jack Holland

Six months after the IRA issued a dramatic statement that opened its arms dumps to outside inspectors and brought about the reestablishment of devolved government in the North, the "political context" that made this possible seems to have dissolved.

In a series of strongly worded attacks, republican spokesmen are now accusing the British government of having failed to deliver on pledges made in May concerning the full implementation of the Good Friday agreement, demilitarization, and the treatment of wanted IRA men still on the run-the so-called OTRs.

Instead, according to republicans, the Police Bill "gutted" the Patten Report, Unionists have undermined the Good Friday agreement by blocking Sinn Fein ministers from attending cross-border meetings, and the issue of OTRs and demilitarization have yet to be seriously addressed.

Sinn Fein Vice President Pat Doherty has called the new police service envisioned in the bill, which last week became law, "a reincarnation of the RUC. The legislation, he said, "did not deliver" on the pledges the British government made in May. He termed the bill "a disaster."

Meanwhile, Sinn Fein is challenging the Unionist ban in court. According to Martin McGuinness, the minister of education in the new Stormont government, if the case fails, "the Good Friday agreement isn’t worth the paper it is written on."

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Gerry Adams, the party president, also warned that the current crisis "at the very least . . . is about the failure of the political process" in Northern Ireland.

These warnings stem from the position the IRA took in its statement of May 6. It spelled out the "new context" that would allow it to initiate "a process that will completely and veritably put IRA arms beyond use." This was: "the full implementation, on a progressive and irrevocable basis by the two governments, especially the British government, of what they have agreed, will provide a political context, in an enduring political process with the potential to remove the causes of the conflict . . . "

According to the May 6 statement, this entailed the British fulfilling "their commitments under the Good Friday agreement and the Joint Statement."

As understood by the IRA, that included the full implementation of the recommendations of the Patten report, as well as movement on the status of OTRs and rapid demilitarization.

A secret meeting between British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Adams (revealed in the Irish Echo) which took place in London at the beginning of August failed to resolve the OTR issue. Privately, the British told Adams that any move they made to allow wanted IRA men to return to Northern Ireland without fear of arrest would amount to an amnesty, which would further enrage Unionist opinion.

Republican unhappiness was made plain just over a month ago. On Oct. 26, an IRA statement announcing another arms inspection spoke of "the obvious failure of the British government to honor its obligations under the terms of the Good Friday agreement and the commitments made at Hillsborough."

The latest warnings have emanated from McGuinness, Adams and Doherty, men who are among the most prominent in the republican movement and closely identified with the movement’s current strategy. McGuinness has been especially Cassandra-like in his warnings. Last weekend, he said that a failure to resolve the current crisis "would be a huge blow to all we have worked for over the last 10 years."

This is particularly significant. It was McGuinness who, in September 1990, engaged in the first behind-the-scenes-contacts with British officials, which helped start the current peace process. McGuinness, a former chief of staff of the IRA, still carries enormous weight within the movement, and it is generally assumed that if he warns that things are going badly, then it has to be taken seriously.

However, nobody within the republican movement is actually threatening a return to arms. The IRA has only threatened that it would not reengage with the decommisioning body chaired by John De Chastelain, as the British and Irish governments have demanded. But this in itself entails enormous dangers. According to Peter Mandelson, the Northern Ireland secretary of state, such a failure could lead to the "unraveling" of the whole agreement.

On the political front, the scene is looking no better. If Sinn Fein should prevail in the courts against the ban imposed by Unionist leader David Trimble — an outcome which the party’s legal advisers think is more likely than not — it still would not resolve the dispute. It is doubtful, say informed sources, that the courts can actually force Trimble to sign the papers allowing Sinn Fein ministers to attend the meetings under the ‘gis of North-South Ministerial Council. The end result of this action may be the suspension of the devolved government for a second time.

Many doubt that the government, or the agreement which set it up, could survive such an outcome.

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