Boston Herald February 23, 2000 Irish peace needs level playing field Joseph Kennedy II and Patrick Purcell
The Irish peace process is unfair. Simply put, the Irish Republican Army should not be forced to disarm before all other paramilitary groups involved in the struggle in Northern Ireland. But that’s exactly what the British government is trying to do.
British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Peter Mandelson made an outrageous decision by precipitously pulling the plug on a democratically elected government in the province.
Loyalist paramilitaries have their own secret arsenal but nowhere did Mandelson site their intransigence in his decisions to suspend the Northern Ireland Assembly.
Loyalists have said they will disarm but only if the IRA goes first. But why put the IRA ahead of Protestant paramilitaries, and for that matter, British soldiers or the Royal Ulster Constabulary?
Make no mistake: We oppose and reject violence of any kind to achieve political ends. For that reason, we have refused over the years to meet with IRA representatives. But that does not mean that we will accept a patently unfair process designed to placate Unionist sympathies.
The vast majority of the Irish people want a demilitarized Ireland, free of paramilitary arms and British troops.
The progress to date in moving toward that goal has been achieved through dialogue, compromise and an even-handed treatment of all parties to the conflict.
The British, however, harkening back to their obstructionist roots, have created an unlevel playing field that violates both the letter and the spirit of carefully crafted peace agreements.
The issue of decommissioning is essential to reaching the trust on which a successful coalition government is based. For that reason, the Good Friday Agreement stipulated that all parties would renounce violence, uphold democracy and use “any influence they may have” to achieve total disarmament of the paramilitaries by a May 22 deadline.
Then why three months before that date has Mandelson suspended the Assembly and reimposed direct rule from London?
The answer is that the British have more sympathy for Unionist politics than with Irish peace. Otherwise, they would apply the same disarmament standard to Loyalists, who are as loathe as Republican to turn over weapons.
The reality is that the IRA sees the handing over of weapons as surrender. The graffiti on the walls of West Belfast bear stark testimony to their perception. The peace process acknowledges that perception by allowing disarmament to occur gradually, with a power-sharing government acting to increase the trust between one-time combatants.
Mandelson’s decision also flies in the face of the Sinn Fein’s urging the IRA to enter into dialogue with the decommissioning panel headed by John de Chastelain.
For its part, the de Chastelain commission called the latest IRA disarmament offer “valuable progress” in the search for peace.
But that hasn’t been enough for the Ulster Unionist Party and its leader, David Trimble, who fears losing his hold on the province’s largest Unionist group without at least some token act of disarmament by the IRA.
The moderate Social Democratic and Labour Party, headed by Nobel Peace Prize winner John Hume, has been critical of both sides -- seeking some movement toward decommissioning by the IRA and the Loyalists while urging the British not to suspend the power-sharing government.
Seamus Mallon, an SDLP member of Parliament and deputy minister in the now suspended home-rule government, has rightly pointed out that disarmament is more likely to take place in the context of established institution than dissolved ones. The British government has been more than compliant over the years with Unionist demands. Under John Major, the government rejected the recommendation. The British should certainly be concerned about the pace of disarmament talks, but they should not allow Trimble to hold the peace process hostage.] tion of former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell to pursue peace and self-governance on a separate track from decommissioning. That led to the breakdown of the first IRA ceasefire.
Sen. Mitchell was called into service again to cobble together the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and did so with an able assist from Mo Mowlam, then secretary of state for Northern Ireland. However, the formation of the Northern Ireland Assembly was delayed over decommissioning. Sen. Mitchell’s efforts once again broke a stalemate, allowing the government to form in November while de Chastelain’s panel continued to pursue a plan to remove weapons once and for all from the Irish political landscape.
The British should certainly be concerned about the pace of the disarmament talks, but they should not allow Trimble to hold the peace process hostage to Unionist politics. At the same time, the IRA should restart talks with the de Chastelain panel and put forward a credible and specific plan to meet at the May 22 deadline.
Peace is not possible without dialogue. But the British, by making dialogue impossible, are making conflict inevitable.
It’s time for the British government to drop its one-sided insistence on IRA disarmament and to level the playing field in the Irish peace process once and for all.