Acts of 'completion'
by David Granville and Bobbie Heatley
THE CURRENT round of talks aimed at restoring the Northern Ireland’s devolved institutions is rapidly approaching yet another new watershed.
Doubts over the British government’s original 17 March deadline turned out to be entirely justifiable. But while extra time for negotiations has been factored in and the date of the assembly elections put back to the end of May, there’s still no guarantee that sufficient agreement will eventually emerge.
If all this appears depressingly familiar, that’s because it is. In a process beset by perpetual crisis, this is little more than business as usual and is not cause for undue pessimism — though, clearly, neither is it a cause for optimism.
About the only thing that can be guaranteed at this stage is that any so-called ‘acts of completion’ on the part of republicans, particularly in regard to the IRA, will depend on corresponding ‘acts of completion’ on the part of the British government and unionism. High up on republican’s list is an unambiguous and ‘transparent’ plan by the British government for the full implementation of the Belfast agreement, particularly in relation to demilitarisation, ‘on-the run’ republicans and a range of policing, justice and equality issues.
Just as crucial will be safeguards to ensure that unionists are prevented from being able to pull the plug on the Good Friday institutions whenever Trimble, or whoever eventually ends up at the top of the unionist tree, comes under pressure from internal opponents or simply feels that the nationalist community is making too many gains.
On the other side of the coin, there seems little doubt that a successful agreement could see significant developments in relation to the IRA, with further acts of decommissioning, an end to intelligence gathering, a formal declaration that the war is over or even the standing down of active-service units, among the ‘imaginative responses’ being talked about by seasoned observers and grassroots activists alike.
There are also clear indications that republicans could join the new Northern Ireland police board, providing that their concerns are addressed in the shape of the full implementation of the Pattern report — although Sinn Féin insists that policing is a ‘stand alone’ issue and not tied in to any wider deal over a the restoration of the Good Friday institutions.
Any one of these developments would of been unthinkable only a few years back. Yet, even if the IRA was to declare that ‘the war is over’, cease all activity and disband there is always the danger — already evident — that unionism will simply pocket the ‘concessions’ and come up with a set reworked excuses for excluding republicans and frustrating genuine power-sharing.
Former deputy leader of the Ulster Unionists, John Taylor — now Lord Kilclooney — is among senior unionist figures to have indicated that complete IRA disarmament will not be enough to restore power-sharing in Northern Ireland.
Taylor and current UUP leader David Trimble have also been at the forefront of attempts to include sanctions against paramilitary organisations which fail to keep the peace as part of any deal. There’s no prizes for guessing which paramilitary organisation they have in mind and which political party they envisage any such sanctions being primarily used against.
Hardly surprising then that support for the Good Friday deal among unionists continues to wane. A recent opinion poll published in the Belfast Telegraph indicated that a majority of Ulster Unionist Party members (51 per cent) now opposes the agreement compared with 73 per cent of Trimble supporters who were in favour five years ago.
If Tony Blair is serious about his desire to save the Good Friday agreement he will have to demonstrate to Trimble supporters and unionist ‘rejectionists’ alike exactly who is boss within UK-unionism.
Unfortunately, to date, he has shown little sign of being willing to do this. Whether he is either able or willing to rise to the challenge over the coming months, especially in view of his Bush’s preparations for a totally unjustifiable war against Iraq, remains far from clear.
Never has it been more important for friends of Ireland in Britain to work together to ensure that the Blair government is left in no doubt that pandering to the agenda of the Ulster unionists is no longer an option.
With some considerable effort, and a bit of luck, this could also provide much-needed opportunities for working out how we address the single most important act of ‘completion’ in relation to the whole Irish question — a time when Britain finally draws a line under its colonial involvement in Ireland.
Despite the undoubted benefits brought about by the stuttering Good Friday process, this objective, which is essential to the building a new and progressive relationship between Britain and Ireland based on mutual trust, friendship and respect, remains some way off. It is in the interests of people in Britain and Ireland to find ways of making the intervening wait as short as possible.
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