If Bill Clinton finds time to look up from the debacle of NATO’s bombing of Serbia, he will find that Protestant holdouts in Northern Ireland are on the verge of denying him the only legitimate foreign policy triumph he can lay claim to: namely, the crucial role of his government, and indeed himself, in brokering a settlement in Northern Ireland.
Unless Clinton instantly flexes some muscle, the entire Good Friday Agreement, joyously ratified in April of 1998, is about to run off the rails, sabotaged by Protestant irreconcilables who think, maybe correctly, that once again they can impose the Unionist Veto, as they have time after bloodstained time down the decades. The instrument at hand is the issue of “decommissioning” IRA weapons.
It’s a fraud, but one that is being all too easily regurgitated in the press here. Story after story has appeared telling the tale that the IRA is welshing on a solemn agreement to hand in its guns, and that said refusal is quite reasonably prompting reluctance on the part of David Trimble and his Ulster Unionist Party to pursue the terms of the peace process to which Trimble set his name, thus earning him a share of the Nobel Peace Prize.
The Good Friday Agreement set forth a route map to settlement of the border question, involving the creation of various institutions, including a Northern Ireland Executive in which Sinn Fein would have seats. The “decommissioning” of illegal arms was explicitly set–and this is the actual language of the agreement–“in the context of the implementation of the overall settlement.” Everyone knew then, just as everyone knows now, that the IRA will never unilaterally disarm, especially when on either side of the prescribed road to peace stand–in ascending order of organized and well-armed capacity for violence–the loyalist gangs, the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the British Army. Burned into the IRA’s historical consciousness is the terrible memory of 1968-69, when Catholic areas, unarmed and defenseless, faced loyalist mobs, and the bitter gibe was that IRA stood for “I Ran Away.”
Suppose Sinn Fein made it a condition of implementation of the agreement that the RUC be disbanded, that all military barracks in the Six Counties be closed?
I’ve seen one estimate suggesting that in Northern Ireland there are 135,000 legally held weapons, 90 percent of them in the hands of unionists. No one is asking for this arsenal to be decommissioned. Indeed, Christy Ward of The Irish People suggests that the International Commission on disarmament hand out weapons permits to allow the IRA to bring its armory up to par.
The decommissioning tactic now used by Trimble looks more than usually hollow, because at long last the secret history of the British dirty war in Northern Ireland is unraveling.