On October 22 Gerry Adams stood in Belfast's historic Conway Mill before a multigenerational audience of Belfast nationalists to confirm a rumor that had been circulating in the city for weeks: that the Irish Republican Army had begun the process of putting "beyond use" its store of handguns, automatic weapons, rocket launchers and explosives under the eye of an independent international body headed by Canada's Gen. John de Chastelain. September 11 accelerated a process that was already under way: On August 6 de Chastelain's commission reported that the IRA had already agreed to an arms-disposal arrangement. Conway Mill casts its shadow over a vanished neighborhood of little homes, burnt to the ground in 1969 by rioting police and Protestant terrorists who killed seven people and displaced thousands of families. Adams's speech had not a trace of eye-for-an-eye ideology: It simply embraced anew the straightforward demands that more than three decades ago launched the Irish Civil Rights Movement: a new policing structure, demilitarization and an equality agenda. By not uttering one word about a united Ireland, Adams made his speech into an open hand, extended toward a deeply divided unionist community. Laurence McKeown, a republican who back in 1981 almost perished on a seventy-day hunger strike, called Adams's gesture "startlingly generous, morally courageous."
McKeown's remarks were in no way political backscratching: Adams took a huge risk by talking disarmament in the midst of a two-month loyalist terror campaign against Catholics in North Belfast. When the C Company of the Ulster Freedom Fighters recently joined forces with members of their longtime loyalist rivals, the Loyalist Volunteer Force, it wasn't to go mano a mano with the Irish Republican Army. It was to lob pipe bombs at a group of little girls--some as young as 4--who were trying to attend Holy Cross Catholic School in the Ardoyne area. Since the beginning of September, these terrified children have had to run a gantlet of some 200 adults, who spit and throw bricks and pipe bombs while chanting: "Fenian sluts!" and "No school today, ya wee whores!" All summer long, the IRA hewed to its pledge to keep the gun out of Irish politics despite the loyalist paramilitary Red Hand Defenders' random slaying of two young Catholic men in Armagh and Antrim; the huge, fully primed bomb the RHD left in the crowded seaside town of Ballycastle; and the bomb that was discovered in the office of the North's Education Minister, Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein. Feeling thwarted by the democratic process, and defying the fact that the majority of the electorate voted for the 1998 Good Friday Accords, these armed-to-the-teeth backbenchers have been lurching to the fore, juicing up their intimidation campaign by stoking anxiety over the North's power-sharing arrangements in the working-class precincts of the Ardoyne.
It's not just Protestant terrorists whose response to the democratic process is insurrection: The suit-and-tie Ulster Unionist Party has consistently used the agreement for target practice. Over the past three years, Tony Blair's reckless equivocations about the terms of the agreement have nearly smothered the peace process altogether, thereby confirming the UUP's credo that the Good Friday terms are optional. Thanks to Blair's pusillanimous (and now former) Northern Secretary Peter Mandelson, who blithely tossed out some of the wisest of the Good Friday policing commission's reform recommendations, the "Ulster Says No" branch of Unionism has become resolute in its belief that not only need they make no more concessions, but they can delete any piece of the agreement at whim. Through a massive failure of nerve, Blair can now stand before his mirror and see his worst nightmare: a face that bears an uncanny resemblance to his UUP-whipped predecessor, John Major.
What will happen next? Will the glowering, hideous spy towers, hovering helicopters and other army equipment that blight the Northern Irish landscape be packed up and shipped back to Britain at last? As part of the IRA's decommissioning deal, Blair has removed four military installations from border areas. But because he's made Unionist leader David Trimble feel that the UUP's old-time religion is still preached from Downing Street's pulpit, don't look for a rush of Unionist peace offerings in response to the IRA's pledge to leave the Armalite behind forever. London still doesn't find preposterous the Unionists' intimation that those Catholic schoolgirls and their terrorist aggressors are somehow equally to blame for the Ardoyne attacks. Until Blair finds his spine and faces down the Unionist refuseniks, that party will be entitled to believe that the epochal Good Friday Accords are ever available for renegotiation, and the loyalist snipers and bomb throwers will feel entitled to even greater freedom of expression.