On many tantalising occasions, when, in the Northern Ireland Peace Process, success seems close, something is done by somebody to snatch it away. So, just as the IRA’s second report to de Chastelain offered to put arms ‘specifically beyond use’, up pops Secretary of State Mandelson to push through a Westminster Act to suspend the Assembly and Executive. Not entirely unsuspected, par for the course, another bunker to make things more difficult.
During the ensuing 10 to 12 weeks frantic efforts by both governments, negotiating with the pro-agreement parties, have, it seems, retrieved some of the ground lost by that mistake.
In a previous article (1/3/00) I thought that the institutions would not be restored soon, but if the Ulster Unionist Council meeting on May 20 consider the IRA statement, with clarifications, sufficient, then the suspensions can be lifted 2 days later, on May 22. This might, in the context of Northern Ireland, be regarded as soon, but acceptance is problematical.
Unionists are still trying to link approval to the retention of the name and symbols of the RUC. Changes in these are contained in the Patten Report on the Police in Northern Ireland, currently before the Westminster Parliament for enactment. If this diehard attitude prevails, and Trimble is not prepared to risk a party split, optimism will disappear once again and we are back in impasse.
They need to be reminded that three Ulster counties (Cavan, Donegal, Monaghan) are actually in the Republic so it is factually incorrect to call the police the Royal Ulster Constabulary for its writ only runs in the 6 of the 9 which make up that province. Furthermore, I know of no other UK force which has ‘Royal’ as a prefix. Perhaps a compromise, calling it the Reformed Ulster Constabulary Northern Ireland might be accepted.
To me, the latest offer as published by the IRA (signed P.O’Neill), does not appear much different from the previous one except that specific measures for the inspection of ‘arms bunkers’ are proposed involving, via the de Chastelain Commission, independent international monitors to ensure that weapons remain beyond the possibility of use. We shall have to await the Unionist Council meeting to see if Trimble obtains a majority to enable him to re-enter the inclusive Executive with Sinn Féin.
The split in attitudes of the British and Irish governments, alleged in a leaked Irish civil service memo, fortunately did not blunt the edge of efforts to bridge the gap between the Ulster Unionists, Sinn Féin and the other pro-agreement parties.
What we do need for progress to be resumed is for David Trimble to rise to the occasion, as First Minister, not simply acting as a party leader tied to the dissidents in his Westminster parliamentary party, the Unionist Council and the Orange Order who opposed the Good Friday Agreement, before and after the referendum.
Both governments have promised to assist the Ulster Unionist leader understanding, as they do, his difficulties in trying to persuade his party to accept the new proposals of ‘arms beyond use’ supervised by former African National Congress Secretary General Cyril Ramaphosa, former Finnish President Marti Ahlisaari and the Canadian General de Chastelain.
The proposal to accompany the lifting of the suspension with a year’s extension of time for the full implementation of the Belfast Agreement is a sensible innovation. This will give time to test the effectiveness (provided they are restored) of the Executive, Assembly and Cross-Border Institutions in dealing with the common problems of both jurisdictions and both communities.
It would also determine the effectiveness of the de Chastelain Commission and the international monitors in coping with the practical difficulties of weapon control, in all aspects, including surveillance towers, aerial observations and military force reductions. The latest information is that the UK government is already diminishing the latter three operations.
The Democratic Unionist Party and the UK Unionist Party, plus some dissidents (who campaigned for a ‘No’ vote in the referendum) remain the only organised opposition (pending the Unionist Council on May 20) to the new proposals. The Ulster Unionists have got something of what they asked for, and the statement is from the IRA as they demanded.
The due date for the UK general election is in spring 2002 and the for year term of the Northern Ireland Assembly ends at the same time. If they do coincide then Northern Ireland questions or problems might dominate the Westminster election.
However, there is some speculation that the latter might take place in 2001, 12 to 18 months earlier. I suspect that there is lurking in Unionist minds that by delaying still further the operation of constitutional changes their opposition to them might be fitted into the Conservative campaign in an early UK election. It is of course a doubtful strategy, but in his desire for power William Hague might take a chance on its being successful.
All three devolved administrations, in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, though different in structure and powers, are elected for four years. But of course the Northern Ireland Assembly was instituted a year earlier than the others but they have now operated for a full year while it has been operational at the most for 2 months out of its 2 years. I would argue that should it be restored on May 22 it should have its term extended by another year, in compensation for the interruption it has suffers. This would assist the functioning of the Council of the Isles (part of the Good Friday Agreement) and bring the election of all three devolved governments to the same date in 2003. Then there would be a gap of 1 to 2 years depending on when the UK election was held, between it and that of the 3 devolved administrations.
As yet I have seen no official comment on the above question, perhaps I may be the only one to suggest it. But it would make sense to do it and there is a sound equality argument for its implementation.
Whether we have reached the final hurdle in this long tortuous journey from War to Peace is still in the balance. Will they cross the Final Frontier which they have baulked at on so many occasions? It depends on whether the leaders, particularly the Ulster Unionists, have the strength and courage to jettison their centuries-old baggage.
Will it be ‘cometh the hour, cometh the man’ to command the vehicle of peace – the Belfast Agreement? Is Trimble trembling on the brink of rising to the imperative? Will Saturday May 20 see this well crafted new initiative thrust into a new democratic dimension?
I fear it is still problematical.