Foot-dragging on Path to Peace

Others will write about the dedication of the Memorial Stone on March 17th 1999, St. Patrick’s Day, at Cathays Cemetery in Cardiff, to those who died and those displaced to Wales, other parts of the UK, and the world as a result of the Irish Potato Famine 1845-49.
In my previous article (The Belfast Agreement – Further Reflections, Green Dragon 8, pp. 43-46) I expressed the hope that as we commemorated the tragic events of 150 years ago we might be able to celebrate the satisfying of a Great Hunger for peace in Ireland.
While to some extent we can do so (the ceasefires still endure) it is somewhat muted. The decommissioning issue, coupled with the appointment of the Executive to take over the running of Northern Ireland affairs, is still dragging on without settlement since the signing of the Good Friday Accord.
The stalemate has been overshadowed by the war and ceasefire in Kosovo, which has forced it into media sidelines, although efforts to reach agreement, involving both government and parties, still continue. Taking time out from other international discussions, including those on Kosovo, Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern attended several bilateral and joint meetings with the parties in an attempt to produce a consensus on the way decommissioning might be started whereby Sinn Féin could be admitted to Executive office and Unionist opposition to their inclusion could be overcome.
Despite this high level involvement there was no consensus so they, via a press conference, issued a Joint Declaration on 1 April outlining how they believed progress might be made. The formal meetings were adjourned until April 14th to allow the parties to consult their members about the contents of the paper.
Their Declaration of April 1st envisaged the setting up of the Executive. the North/South Ministerial Council, the North/South Implementation Bodies, the British/Irish Council and the British/Irish Inter-Governmental Conference.
They affirmed in the document that although there is no precondition to decommission under the Good Friday (1988) Agreement, there is an obligation to do so. The Declaration proposed that, following nominations to the ministerial posts, an act of reconciliation should take place, putting arms beyond use, on a voluntary basis, verified by the International Commission on Decommissioning, within one month of the enactment of the procedure for Executive appointments. If the actions did not take place within the time set then such appointments would have to be confirmed by the Assembly itself.
However, if such an act of reconciliation did not take place it would trigger at the same time, or thereabouts, the powers to govern and the British/Irish Agreement put into force to set up the institutions contained in the Good Friday Agreement.
The Declaration then envisaged further moves on normalisation and demilitarisation in recognition of a changed security situation and went on to reiterate that:

(1) Balanced changes to the Irish Constitution and to British Constitutional Legislation based on the principle of consent had been approved and are ready to take effect.
(2) The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission had been established and members appointed, the new Equality Commission had been legislated for, and the comparable steps in the Irish Republic were under way.
(3) The Commission on Policing and the Review of Criminal Justice were both well advanced in their work and normalisation of security arrangements was proceeding.
(4) Numerous prisoners in both jurisdictions had benefited, and would continue to do so, from the mechanisms providing for accelerated release.

On April 2nd (Good Friday, 1999) following this joint declaration by the two prime ministers the Northern Ireland Peace Process and its chance of success was the subject on the BBC Radio Wales morning phone-in. In participating I said:

"Keeping the membership of their parties and movements intact was the main problem now in Northern Ireland as Ulster Unionists and Republicans feel a cautious way to an accommodation. The ‘No Surrender’ slogan of Unionists applied also to Republicans. Neither could afford to give way to the other, the putative settlement, to be mulled over until April 14th, would be an opportunity for them as they surveyed the prospect of failure, to learn to ‘blink together’. The analogy of climbing a mountain peak only to discover another higher one was appropriate – further problems, such as the Patten Report on policing, yet to come, would have to be faced. But the long journey to peace was still being traversed by both communities."

In response to questioning by the presenter, Vaughan Roderick, I said that Unionists had been obdurate at the time of Prime Minister Terence O’Neill (in the 1960s - Ed.), opposing even his minor reforms. Further questioned, I accepted that they had now moved towards agreeing ‘parity of esteem’ and equal rights for the minority community, but not of their own volition, they had to be forced.
I was then castigated by the Ulster Unionist spokesperson, Ken Maginnis, who said I had given a glib, inaccurate view of history. He claimed that he had been a supporter of O’Neill and his reforms. Most of the fault lay with the other side although, he admitted, some mistakes had been made by Unionists. It was not helpful to mention the past and I had tried to simplify the issue. This could not be done with the last hundred years and even the last thirty, besides, I was probably too young to know or understand the problem.
I responded robustly with a short biographical sketch. Born in 1919, raised in Belfast, I had been active in the Labour and Trade Union Movement, my elder brother had been Leader of the labour Opposition in Stormont (1958 – 1969), I had fought a Belfast (East) City Council election in 1946 during which I had been struck with a brick from a Unionist mob. I had therefore a clear understanding of the party to which he belonged. Furthermore, during the Spanish Civil War, I had, along with others, been escorted from public meetings in support of the democratic Spanish government by the RUC when attacked at the same time by members of both communities.
This concluded my contribution. I would have liked to have seen the colour and expression on Ken’s face after my riposte – he will perhaps have learned not to be so patronising and may even realise that I may have a more objective and accurate historical perspective than he.
The adjourned meeting reconvened on the 14th April but, despite numerous long discussions between officials, parties and the British Prime Minister subsequently, they have failed to reach an understanding on how they might get out of the impasse.
Hour after hour of wrangling has left both the Unionists and Sinn Féin entrenched in their own interpretations of the obligations inherent in the Good Friday Accord. Clearly the Ulster Unionists are concerned about holding their party together, conscious of the possibility of further defections to Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party. The recent Executive Council elections in his party have left David Trimble with a 55% to 45% balance of power in its composition.
Sinn Féin maintains its stance that they are a party in their own right and are not, despite how Unionists and others perceive them, part of the IRA. They have taken their seats on the terms set out in the Good Friday Agreement and are thus committed to the ending of which they summarise as demilitarisation of the whole situation. Unless they are included in the Executive, as per its terms, they consider that the whole process is in .
They sidestep the provision that all members who may form the Executive, should they appear to associate themselves with acts of political , under procedures contained in the Agreement could be removed from office by an Assembly vote.
Meetings are continuing at different levels but, despite some over-optimistic reports of a breakthrough, the sticking point at the time of writing is still the central one of Decommissioning / Executive posts for Sinn Féin. One unofficial report suggests that there would be IRA decommissioning if Sinn Féin were first included in the Executive. This same report claimed that the Ulster Unionists would require this to be in writing, and not just a statement from the IRA.
Speculations abound that there has been some movement on both sides but not enough to produce a definitive statement which would allow appointments to be made.
Both Prime Ministers, the Northern Ireland Secretary and negotiators from the Ulster Unionists, the SDLP and Sinn Féin were closely involved in meetings (said to be relaxed and informal) on Friday May 14th when they adjourned without conclusion, leaving the door open for further consultations. However, since then, David Trimble has restated that he and his party will not agree to Sinn Féin joining the Executive unless some IRA decommissioning does take place.
The view of the British government seems to be that if the International Commission on Decommissioning, chaired by General John de Chastelain, could confirm some measure of decommissioning prior to June 30th then powers to govern in Northern Ireland could be devolved on July 1st at the same time as those to Wales and Scotland.
At present the Drumcree March situation is unresolved, the opposition to the ban imposed by the Parades Commission is still festering away. The First Minister, David Trimble, has had meetings with Garvaghy Road representatives but the situation is still in lock.
The Orange Order has decided that although they will support the local lodge parading and protesting about the ban on July 12th they could not agree to other lodges joining this march to swell the numbers. They recommend that lodges should hold their own local and district parades as usual although they admit that there might be some who would go to Drumcree after their own demonstrations had finished. The police will, of course, be alerted should a flash point occur.
Efforts are being intensified to try to negotiate a compromise on Executive appointments. In my view, while some progress might be made within the de Chastelain commission on detailed mechanisms by which weapons might be put beyond use there is unlikely to be any progress politically on the matter until after the European Parliamentary Elections on June 10th.
The list system which applies in the rest of the UK does not apply in Northern Ireland. There the parties have nominated individual candidates and the single transferable voting system operates. The Six Counties as a single constituency return three members to the European Parliament.
At the last Euro election Ian Paisley (DUP), John Hume (SDLP) and a Mr. Nicholson (UUP) were returned. This time eight candidates have been nominated by the following parties: DUP, SDLP, UUP, UK Unionists, PUP, Alliance, Sinn Féin and the Natural Law Party. (The victors were again Ian Paisley, John Hume and Mr. Nicholson – Ed.)
The DUP (Paisley’s party) is treating the election as if it were another referendum on the Good Friday Agreement so they are putting pressure on David Trimble as efforts are made to resolve the decommissioning issue. With this threat hanging over the Ulster Unionists it is most unlikely that any settlement can be reached no matter how hard prime ministers and others try until the smoke has cleared from the contest. The media, at least on this side of the water, has not mentioned this, although it is important for progress in the peace process.
The whole situation is still problematical and it could well be that June 30th will see Wales and Scotland having their Assembly and Parliament in action but Northern Ireland in the throes of the marching season. Although first to accept an assembly it may be the last to see it start to fully function.

Postscript 1:

Power was transferred to the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly on July 1st, but the line was not met in Northern Ireland.
Following the joint prime ministerial statement of July 2nd, after five days of intense negotiations we are still in limbo for the next two weeks, in the throes of Orange marches.
Ulster Unionists have persistently argued that Sinn Féin and the IRA are one and the same. Perversely, they now say Sinn Féin’s commitment on decommissioning is not enough, they want one from the IRA!
The undertakings given by Sinn Féin, supported in the De Chastelain Commission report, have been described as a ‘seismic shift’ on the part of Republicans. If the Ulster Unionist Party, after considering the proposals, are prepared to make a similar shift then the inclusive Executive can be set up three days after Orangemen celebrate July 12th, following which decommissioning can soon start. Given a fair wind and the right impetus it might even be completed before May 2000.
Many obstacles have still to be faced, but this is ‘crunch time’, the ‘end game’, ‘make up your mind time’.
Shall it be a sharing or will they just continue glaring at each other? After a great deal of time shall a deal be cut this time? Will it be just another piece of paper or shall it be a paper of peace?
The offer is one that mustn’t be refused. The Ulster Unionist Party will have to shoulder the blame if this chance is lost. they and their leader must have the courage to accept the task that history presents to them.

Postscript 2:
Orange and Green Drag-ons

As I anticipated, the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly are up and running, albeit with their own special problems, but the Northern Ireland Assembly is only this Thursday, 2 December 1999, about to shoulder its responsibilities. The February date and one in June passed by, stalemate continuing, then as man-made and natural disasters took media attention Northern Ireland issues were sidelined.
But behind the scenes face to face dialogue was maintained at locations well away from the province yet with no apparent progress. The Secretary of State Mo Mowlam, who had played an outstanding role, got a new job in the government reshuffle and Peter Mandelson was brought into the cabinet and appointed to the office.
Foot dragging still operated, no side apparently prepared to take the first steps to remove the logjam. Then George Mitchell, the former US senator, agreed to make a final effort to remove the impasse.
For eleven weeks or so he brought Sinn Féin, Ulster Unionists and others into protracted discussions. There they confronted each other with statements on their positions and the possibilities of taking their parties, supporters and other protagonists into conflict resolutionary mode as well as the consequences of failure.
Very little filtered out of the meetings, everyone steered clear of the media who, to be fair, realising the crucial nature of the contacts, concentrated their attention on other global problems and on indiscretions within the national scene.
Even the important Patten report on Northern Ireland Police Reform was given a low profile lest its spanner in the Peace Works potential was advanced.
Then George Mitchell produced his interim and final reports saying that conditions for a settlement existed. So, after a long time waiting for the bus, it appeared and everybody began to scramble aboard, except the Democratic Ulster Unionists contingent.
On Saturday 27 November 1999 the Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble obtained a 58% to 48% vote at a special 858 strong Unionist Council meeting empowering him to accept the proposals, with the proviso that another decision could be taken in February 2000 if no decommissioning had been undertaken.
Despite this final sting at Sinn Féin the way was cleared for action in the Assembly to set up the Inclusive Executive on Monday 29 November and for the IRA to appoint an interlocutor to the De Chastelain decommissioning organisation.
Thus the End Game appears to be on at last.
Action has been taken at Westminster to transfer power to the Executive and Assembly, in areas covered by the Good Friday Agreement, with effect from Thursday, 2 December.
The ten member Executive is proportionally composed of members from the Ulster Unionists, the SDLP, Sinn Féin and the DUP. The latter, despite having campaigned for a no vote in the referendum in 1998 that followed the Good Friday Agreement and despite being still opposed to the Mitchell Report, have claimed their two Executive seats.
Although optimism is justified, we can remember that the DUP which, from the outside, lead the campaign to end previous power sharing arrangements, their declared purpose now is to frustrate it from the inside. I can see no way in which they could be ejected from their portfolios if they persisted in obstruction, though there may be a loophole.
Finally, next year. Easter Monday 24 April will be the 84th commemoration of the Easter Rising, on the exact day and date. If by that date decommissioning was completed it would be a significant step to a united purpose to establish a lasting peace in a new century, a new Millennium and a new, just Ireland Settlement.
Since being born three years and two days after that rebellion started I have waited for a realistic, just settlement. I believe it is now within our grasp, and I hope to survive somewhat more than my eighty years to see it consolidated.

©: Samuel H. Boyd, Cwmbran, Wales, a regular contributor to this publication who celebrated his 80th birthday in April 1999, is a native of Belfast.

Published in The Green Dragon No 9, Winter 1999

Samuel H. Boyd