Northern Ireland at crossroads
By CNN European Political Editor Robin Oakley
LONDON, England (CNN) -- The British government, as expected, has sought to buy further time for the peace process by suspending the Northern Ireland assembly and reimposing direct rule.
Theoretically, the government had until midnight on Saturday to persuade pro-British Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble to seek again the post as first minister which he resigned last month, and to get his majority party to back and re-elect him.
But Trimble has said he is not prepared to stand again until there is actual decommissioning of arms by the Irish Republican Army as opposed to the paramilitaries’ assurance that they will “initiate a process” leading to decommissioning.
On Thursday the IRA said in a public statement it had agreed with the international disarmament commission a way of putting its weapons beyond use, but it did not offer a timetable for doing so.
Trimble greeted that by saying it wasn’t enough and that the IRA “have let down everybody in Northern Ireland”.
For Trimble it is a case of twice bitten, thrice shy. He has twice before entered government alongside Sinn Fein, the political allies of the IRA, on the expectation that decommissioning would then start and twice he has been disappointed.
He has been under intense pressure from his Ulster Unionist party. Some of his MPs have called for a fresh start in place of the Good Friday agreement of 1998 and many Ulster Unionist members have reverted to their old slogan of “no guns, no government”, meaning that they will refuse to serve in a power-sharing executive with Sinn Fein until there is IRA decommissioning.
So far none of the Northern Ireland parties has accepted the latest package of proposals put forward by the British and Irish governments in an attempt to save the peace process.
For the two governments, struggling to keep that process alive, the problem with calling fresh elections, as the Northern Ireland Secretary Dr. John Reid, could have opted for instead of suspending the Assembly, is that it would be likely to polarise opinion still further.
In the June elections for the British Westminster Parliament and for local councils the hardline Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein profited at the expense of the more moderate Ulster Unionists and the moderate Republicans in the SDLP.
The Ulster Unionist stipulations on decommissioning are not the only thing holding up acceptance by the Northern Ireland parties of the latest peace proposals.
Republicans were felt to have done well out of the package, seen by many as “green-tinged”. Ulster Unionists were bitter about its proposals for further police reforms and for an amnesty for terrorist suspects on the run.
But the SDLP has said the concessions do not go far enough. It is not satisfied with the reforms proposed to encourage more Catholics to join the revamped Northern Ireland police force.
And while the Ulster Unionists are insisting on a timetable for when the IRA will put its arms “permanently and verifiably beyond use” Sinn Fein is believed to be looking for a timetable in return on promised police reforms and demilitarisation measures promised by the two governments.
The situation could still be changed dramatically if the IRA were to start putting its arms beyond use. General John de Chastelain, heading the international decommissioning body, said on Monday he was satisfied with the method proposed by the IRA in its latest contacts with him.
There have been suggestions in republican circles that the process could begin within a month. But the IRA is notoriously resistant to any timetable proposed by governments or by its political opponents on the Unionist side.
Technically, the suspension of the Assembly triggers another six week “grace” period during which both sides can work on their timetables in the hope of rescuing the peace process.
The original Good Friday Agreement of 1998 did not specify that the IRA and other paramilitary organisations would hand in their weapons. The IRA cry at that time was still “no decommissioning.”
But the IRA did say in May 2000 that they would in due course put their weapons beyond use, subject to various conditions.
It is that which has led Ulster Unionists to accuse them of breaking promises, while Sinn Fein argues that the British government has not met its promises on demilitarisation and that some Unionists are using the arms issue as a pretext to refuse them a role in government.
Unionists know that the arms issue is more symbolic than real. An IRA movement which rendered its guns and bombs useless could always buy replacements later. But in a peace process depending on leaps of faith on both sides symbolism is important.
At the moment, with the air thick with recriminations nobody is prepared to leap very far, and every little bit of symbolism helps.
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