Legally held unionist weaponry remains an obstacle to peace and political progress in Ireland, argues Moya St Leger
FEW OUTSIDE Ireland would have understood why 1000 PSNI officers backed up by 1000 soldiers came under attack from loyalists throwing, blast bombs and firing automatic weapons last September.
A few years ago, Albert Reynolds remarked on Radio 4's Today programme, "the North is awash with weapons". Back then, Mr Reynolds wasn't only referring to IRA weapons, a point that may have even got past his BBC interviewer.
There is a schizophrenic element to the business of weapons in Northern Ireland. While IRA weapons attracted frenzied media attention last year, a blanket of silence was firmly thrown over the issue of licensed weapons.
Seven guns were recovered after the September 2005 mayhem but we were not told if they were illegal or licensed weapons.
The number of weapons including shotguns, currently held on licence in Northern Ireland is 144,554, up by a staggering 5,634 on the 2001 figure. It is undisputed that the majority of licence holders Protestants, a community declining in number.
By mid-2004 the population of Northern Ireland was 1,710,322 of whom 1,326,978 were over 16 years of age. The ratio of weapons per head of the population is currently estimated at 1 gun for every 9 adults. Compare. In 2004, the estimated population in England and Wales was 53,046,300 of whom 42,718,750 were 16 plus. The number of licensed weapons is 1,714,925, providing roughly one weapon for every 25 adults over 16.
Why the discrepancy? Now that the IRA has decommissioned its weapons, why is the number of licensed weapons held in homes, sheds, gun cabinets and at over 160 gun clubs across the length and breadth of Northern Ireland on the increase? Can they really just be explained away by the familiar response to this question, "vermin control" and "clay pigeon shooting?"
The new Firearms (NI) Order 2004 which came into effect in February 2005, updated the law in the North. Among other things, it introduces the idea of referees and a re-grant process requiring renewal applications to be treated as first time applications. In the short period since the Order came into effect, there appears to be an increase in the number of firearm holders who are not renewing their certificates.
The radical changes in the North being brought about by the implementation of the Good Friday agreement have not included the most essential change of all: the 'decommissioning' of licensed weapons. As long as the threat of a repeat of September's disturbances hangs over the community, the presence of thousands of easily accessible licensed weapons distributed across the North flies in the face of common sense.
The province's gun culture remains intact. Legal and illegal, this vast arsenal of legal weapons will continue to undermine all efforts to bring about political development, social cohesion and economic stability.
The present political situation in the North is unprecedented so requires unprecedented measures for the short term. So what is to be done? A further decommissioning, this time of licensed weapons, administered by the PSNI and overseen by General de Chastelain would appear a sensible option?
For citizens of good will, a temporary requirement to hand in the licensed 89,626 shotguns, 16,573 rifles, 14,218 handguns, 23,070 air guns and 1,067 miscellaneous weapons, could be regarded as a sacrifice for the good of the whole community.
Vermin control officers could be appointed for a prescribed period, and the temporary suspension of clay pigeon shooting is not an irreversible deterioration of the quality of life for the good people of Northern Ireland.
However, diehard opponents of the Good Friday agreement are not likely to willingly hand over their licensed weapons, even for a temporary period. For them it would spell capitulation to the United Irelanders. On 26 September last year - the day the IRA announced decommissioning its weapons - BBC correspondent Hugh Sykes interviewed loyalist, Sam Duddy. Asked how Protestants would react if the democratic process led to a united Ireland, Duddy had no doubts: "I envisage loyalists and Unionists taking up arms".
Their munitions are already in place, legal and illegal.
Licensed weapons constitute an issue which can no longer be ignored. As secretary of state for the North Peter Hain observed after last September's shootings, "the endgame is always the most difficult time". Does the 'endgame' envisaged by Mr Hain include a civil war involving licensed weapons?
Statistics in this article have been provided by the Office for National Statistics and the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency
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