The internecine warfare between the two Loyalist splinter groups, the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and the Loyalist Volunteer Force (LUF), appears to have at least paused and hopefully ended by a truce mediated by clerics. Moreover, there are rumours that overtures will soon be made to General De Chastelain to arrange the decommissioning of Loyalist-held weaponry.
This should strengthen the case for a speeding up of efforts to achieve a return to Assembly government. If Loyalist decommissioning does occur it means that, unlike some politicians, they have accepted the validity of the IRA arms destruction which was monitored by De Chastelain Commission members and two clerical witnesses.
The time then has surely arrived for the Unionist parties, especially the DUP, to also accept that they should join with Sinn Féin and other to “make politics work”.
However, in the Westminster Parliament there was the strange coincidence of the Anti Terrorism Bill (in which Prime Minister Blair wanted to impose a form of detention for 90 days of suspects – shades of internment – this was rejected by 322 votes to 291 while on the other hand another bill to facilitate the return of ‘Runaways’ to Northern Ireland was being introduced.
(‘Runaways’ are those charged with or suspected of paramilitary activities on both sides or who have escaped custody by leaving the jurisdiction. Under the planned legislation these can be freed under licence by due legal process.)
In the Commons debate and in the media generally Conservatives made much of of the contrasting situation which no doubt had some bearing on the defeat of the 90 days clause and its replacement by 28 days as a maximum.
However, support for implementing the understandings and undertakings in respect of offences committed prior to the Good Friday Agreement is fully justified by the progress made by the Republicans in decommissioning as part of the peace process.
The same principle will apply to members of the security forces in respect of any offences prior to the date of that Agreement – 10th April 1998.
It is fortunate in one way that the outcome of the Commons vote (9th November) did not, as far as the government was concerned, require a back door deal with the DUP MPs in return for a brake on the proposals in respect of the ‘runaways’.
I understand that efforts were made to get the SDLP on board to vote for the 90 days detention of terrorist suspects but it appears that this was not forthcoming, the hand of the history of internment in Northern Ireland was the obvious factor in their reluctance.
In his stubborn assertion that this period was essential the Prime minister ignored the “hand of history”, a phrase he had used in April 1998. He also ignored the thirty years in Northern Ireland preceding that event and the fact that these tactics had failed in India in the 1930s, in the period leading up to the birth of the state of Israel in the 1940s, in Malaysia in the 1950s and in Ireland as a whole in earlier times.
While many others as well as myself are reluctant to accept diminution of civil rights and the extension of sweeping police powers the 28 days which the MPs agreed to is a much less onerous imposition and is less likely to spark violent reaction in ethnic minority communities. It needs, however, to be used fairly, intelligently and sensitively.