Northern Ireland: Peace in Rest

In one of those surveys carried out from time to time it appears that many good ideas occur to people whilst they are in the smallest room in the house, when their minds seem free to ponder on serious questions, rather than concentrating on the job in hand. Not quite like the ‘Eureka!’ shout from Archimedes when he realised the displacement principle while he was in the bath, but the same sort of idea.
I wonder if any others like me, as the song ‘Oft in the the Stilly Night ere slumber’s chains have bound me’ says, ponder on the Peace Process and how the logjam might be realeased, their minds like mine, leaping easily over the hurdles which in the cold light of dawn are much more formidable than their pre-sleep conclusions.
This last week or so, just those sorts of things have been uppermost in my thoughts at such times and many other hours of the day, as different news items are heard and seen in the media. incidents which we had hoped would not return, such as the car bomb attack on the BBC in London, explosive devices placed on the Belfast to Dublin rail track and the disablings, shootings and beatings engaged in by assailants in both community areas.
The discussions also between Prime Ministers Blair and Ahern and those between Blair and northern political leaders (pro Agreement) coming to naught, were upstaged in media attention by the Provisional IRA announcing that they were re-engaging on decommissioning with General De Chastelain.
Although the statement was widely welcomed, ending a nine month break, it was not specific enough to allay the Unionists’ suspicions that it was only a propoganda ploy to coincide with the failure to achieve a breakthrough at the Hillsborough talks.
However, following these meetings, a joint statement was issued by both governments that progress had been made, although there had been a substantial shift in the stance of the northern parties on critical issues such as policing and decommissioning.
The new Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, now around fifty five days in office, not yet with as high a profile as his predecessors, has been quietly working on the job, apart from a few radio appearances.
In interviews on the BBC and RTÉ he has said also that some progress had been made and that understanding had been advanced with one of the parties on policing and related matters. He didn’t mention the name, but judging by comments from Gerry Adams after late night meetings it can’t have been Sinn Féin, so one can only assume it was the SDLP.
In previous articles I suggested that the Ulster Unionist Party’s intention was to spion things out so that full operation of the Good Friday Agreement (1998) would be in limbo at the time of the Westminster General Election, predicted for 3rd of May 2001, now only a few weeks away unless the outbreak of foot and mouth disease in the UK causes a postponement.
They have more or less achieved this, but in retrospect David Trimble may now be wondering if this had really been the best choice of strategy to pursue. Though it has held his shaky party together, according to the signs and whispers in the northern political labyrinth, there could be, post election, six Paisleyite MPs (plus McCartney) returned on the Unionist side with only four Ulster Unionists, including Trimble himself, two of whom are very doubtful about the Agreement.
There are also rumours that some electoral arrangements might be made between the SDLP and Sinn Féin, but irrespective of such a deal, the other seven seats are likely to be shared between them, which of them having four is problematical. This distribution, if it occurred, would diminish Trimble’s standing and influence at Westminster, regardless of who forms the next government – the polls, however predict at present a Labour win.
He did, nonetheless, appear quite ‘chipper’ when interviewed on the BBC ‘On the Record’ programme on Sunday March 11th, reiterating his intention to continue the ban (despite the High Court decision that it was not lawful) on Sinn Féin participating in cross-border ministerial meetings, until there were more positive decommissioning moves by the Provisional IRA.
There were more options under consideration by his party but the onus was on Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern to bring more pressure on Republicans to get them to engage more seriously with General De Chastelain’s commission.
His party and supporters, he claimed, wanted the Belfast Agreement and its institutions to remain and he did not expect them to collapse during the period of the general election. On the possibility of suspension he said that he had no powers to effect this, that was the responsibility of the British government.
The Belfast Agreement itself is under pressure from both sides as the election date approaches – earlier this year Gerry Adams said it was on ‘life support’. Trimble has said it needs a formal review, Paisley demands full re-nogotiation and an idea is simmering away that there should be a Good Friday Agreement Mark 2. Well, considering the contents of the present one nearly three years old and the date of Good Friday this year, Friday April 13th (for the superstitious not the best of omens), they should be shaping up now.
This would or could only mean a cross-party consensus and agreement with the parties who signed the original one on decommissioning and policing and, as the parties seem unlikely to come to such understandings before the expected election, this can be ruled out.
How this would work out is problematical, a new agreement could surely not be possible when the present one was endorsed by over 72% in Northern Ireland and 94% in the Republic in the 1998 referendums.
Would it need to be re-run? Surely the results in the coming contests for the Northern Ireland Westminster seats, if the predictions mentioned earlier materialised, couldn’t be used to force change.
It is salutary to remember that in his interview with John Humphreys in ‘On the Record’ 11th March the First Minister, David Trimble, reminded us that the Good Friday Agreement’s full implementation date, having been postponed from May 2000, was June 2001 – there was a hint that post election he and other Unionists might accept that time had run out and the Agreement become void.
If Nationalists and Republicans come to the view that this is part of Trimble’s strategy it will make it more difficult for anyone to persuade the Provisional IRA to continue contacts with De Chastelain.
Sinn féin is arguing that Unionists are fixated on decommisssioning and ignoring the fact that the Provos have operated a ceasefire since 1994 and have opened their dumps to inspection and monitoring.
So on the Nationalist and Republican sides they are pressing for demilitarisation, dismantling of observation towers, troop reductions and also of helicopter flights etc, especially in border areas, despite significant steps already taken in this direction.
But with the recent actions by Republican dissidents, the Real IRA, it is hard to see that more can be granted jon either side ust prior to a general election.
In essence the ball is firmly in the Republican court, and although they may have to look over their shoulder at the ‘Real IRA’, if they really want to make politics work and remove the gun from the political arena they are the only people who can negative the dissidents.
That is, of course, the problem, which seems easy, as I said earlier, as one rests before slumber, but difficult in the light of day.
If they dealt with the ‘Real IRA’ as in the past they would be accused of breaching the ceasefire, and if they informed the authorities they would risk their own lives and achieve Peace in Rest (and a very permanent one).

©: Samuel H. Boyd, Cwmbran, Gwent, Wales, 14 March, 2001.

Samuel H. Boyd

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