The Long Spoons of Ulster

The Long Spoons of Ulster

Mini Teaser: Disturbing indications that the habits of veteran terrorists die hard in Northern Ireland.

by Author(s): Jonathan Stevenson

The epochal September 11 attacks have increased the sensitivity and hostility of most governments worldwide to terrorism. Nevertheless, there remains a practical distinction between "new" terrorist outfits like Al-Qaeda, which have no negotiable political objective, and "old" terrorist groups motivated by nationalist or irredentist agendas that may be subject to negotiation. If anything, September 11 has made the leaders of some countries afflicted with "old" terrorist problems want to settle matters quickly, before such groups establish links with or try to imitate the methods of new terrorists like Osama bin Laden. Varieties of such activity have occurred from Sri Lanka to the Andes in the hopes that negotiated solutions are in fact possible. With the FARC in Colombia and the PLO in Palestine, protracted but futile efforts at patient negotiation suggest that in these cases they may not be. With the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka and ETA in Spain, it is too soon to say. But it is at least plausible that these and other problems may be amenable to negotiated solutions. Governments thus need to exercise a hard-nosed realism: to appreciate and preserve distinctions among terrorist groups, and to remain open to negotiating with those that may be politically tamed.

The Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) has appeared to be one such group. When the Belfast Agreement was approved by 71 percent of Northern Irish voters in May 1998, moderate Ulster unionism and Irish nationalism held sway. The greatest political challenges to ending the "troubles" appeared to have been overcome. Deaths from political violence dwindled from close to one hundred per year before the autumn 1994 ceasefires to about twenty per year in the subsequent five-year period. The Republic of Ireland discarded its constitutional claim on Northern Irish territory. After more than 25 years of violent opposition to a "partitionist" solution to the Northern Irish conflict, once militant republicans in Sinn Fein, the IRA's political wing, accepted a devolved government founded on the legitimacy of partition--at least as an interim arrangement.

At the same time, Protestant unionists further enshrined the consent principle (dubbed the "unionist veto" by republicans) whereby Northern Ireland must remain part of the United Kingdom until its majority says otherwise. The "soft" constitutional nationalists that opposed violence, being the majority of the province's Catholics, won sub-sovereign cross-border administrative bodies in specified substantive areas to be jointly run by officials from Dublin and Belfast. Between 1994 and 2001, the province was significantly demilitarized; the British troop presence dropped from over 17,000 to 14,000 and numerous watchtowers and army posts were dismantled. The belief prevailed that the hard work had been done, and that even the most fraught issues left to be faced--the disarmament of terrorist groups, or "decommissioning", further demilitarization, police reform and others--would in time be solved.

It hasn't turned out to be such a smooth ride. While police reform is under way, little decommissioning has occurred. Increasing numbers of unionists resent governing with a political party that sports a "private army", while acquiescing to the evisceration of a police force that suffered over 300 fatalities in resisting that army. At the same time, nationalists have warmed to a Sinn Fein whose paramilitary arm no longer demonizes the Catholic community by killing policemen and soldiers, but still dominates Northern Irish politics by dint of holding on to nearly one hundred tons of weaponry. These trends were starkly confirmed on June 7, 2001, when Northern Irish voters chose their 18 Westminster members of Parliament. The Rev. Ian Paisley's anti-Agreement Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) increased its number of MPs from two to five at the expense of the larger Ulster Unionist Party (UUP); Sinn Fein (which stands for Westminster elections but does not participate in national government in Britain) vaulted from two to four at the expense of the soft nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP). Local council elections followed a similar pattern. This suggests that the sides are drawing further apart, not closer together.

Nevertheless, the republican and unionist positions are not as irreconcilable as these results might indicate. Paisley's DUP and Sinn Fein are thinking and behaving differently than they have before. The DUP manifesto is not focused on undermining the Belfast Agreement but rather on "holding Tony Blair to his pledges." Its key principles are drafted carefully so as to enshrine meaningful decommissioning as the only indispensable requirement of Sinn Fein's participating fully in devolved government. As for Sinn Fein, partition and devolution will never be satisfactory to republicans; yet a week before the Westminster election Martin McGuinness triumphantly told London's Daily Telegraph: "There's almost an inevitability that within the next five years . . . the First Minister will be a Sinn Fein minister." Devolution compensates republicans psychologically for decades of perceived exclusion. For practical purposes, too--given that they do not actively engage in British national politics--republicans need devolved government in Northern Ireland as a way to demonstrate their competence as a legitimate party, the better to become a major political force in the Republic of Ireland en route (presumptively) to a united Ireland. Republicans therefore seem willing to govern with unionists for some undefined but not fatally short period.

Dramatic developments in late October 2001, as well as the chilling effect of September 11, reflected these attitudes. David Trimble resigned as First Minister of the devolved assembly on July 1 over the decommissioning impasse, and on October 18 finally withdrew the Ulster Unionist Party's ministers from the assembly's governing executive. This put pressure on the IRA to disarm in order to forestall the collapse of the assembly and save the Agreement. After the arrests in Colombia of three IRA men for training the anti-American Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in August and then the September 11 attacks, Washington privately made it clear to Sinn Fein that republicans would receive no diplomatic support from the United States unless the IRA disarmed. This combination of internal crisis and diplomatic pressure produced the IRA's first disarmament gesture of October 23.

As gestures go, however, it was minimal: It involved no more than two arms dumps out of dozens, and was verified not by the British government or unionists but by the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning (IICD). Chaired by Canadian General John de Chastelain, the IICD has no enforcement power and has functioned as little more than a liaison. Neither the nature and quantity of arms nor the method by which they were rendered unusable was made public. When asked by unionist assembly member Pauline Armitage whether he could not disclose this information "because it is so paltry that it would be embarrassing", Gen. de Chastelain replied: "I would never argue against a woman's intuition."

Nevertheless, most unionists re-joined the executive. Trimble was narrowly re-installed as First Minister, but support in his own party was so weak that he had to ask members of small non-aligned parties to designate themselves unionists for a day to secure this result. In any event, the assembly has been functioning ever since. Decommissioning is likely to remain the source of repeated crises, however; it is the one issue with the potential to destroy the Belfast Agreement. The question is, will it?

The Decommissioning Problem

In deference to republican sensitivities, the Belfast Agreement does not strictly require IRA decommissioning, but merely establishes it as an objective of the peace process "in the context of the implementation of the overall settlement." In the run-up to the Agreement, however, Trimble needed London's affirmation that Sinn Fein would not be allowed to participate in the executive unless the IRA had first substantially disarmed. On Good Friday, April 10, 1998, the day before the Agreement was signed, Trimble received a letter from Tony Blair stating that "the effect of the decommissioning section of the agreement, with decommissioning schemes coming into effect in June [1998], is that the process of decommissioning should begin straight away." It clearly implied that absent meaningful decommissioning after six months, the British government would "support changes" to provisions of the Belfast Agreement "preventing" uncooperative parties from holding office in the devolved assembly's governing executive.

The letter finessed the timing issue, but its obvious intent was to reassure Trimble that the British government would honor his wish to deny Sinn Fein executive participation absent decommissioning. Unionists have argued ever since that insofar as such reassurance is an integral part of the quid pro quo, it is effectively part of the Agreement. Thus, they contended, the UUP council's allowing Sinn Fein into government prior to IRA disarmament in December 1999 signified the re-negotiation of the "no guns, no government" condition and justified the imposition of a shorter deadline set by the UUP. When the IRA missed that deadline and Westminster suspended the devolved assembly in February 2000 as a consequence, Sinn Fein countered that the Agreement also specified that decommissioning must begin only "in the context of . . . overall implementation." This "context" is republican code for loyalist disarmament, the literal or de facto disbandment of the 88 percent Protestant police force (formerly known as the Royal Ulster Constabulary, but last November renamed the Police Service of Northern Ireland as a concession to nationalists) and a comprehensive British military withdrawal.

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