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The Politics of Public Humiliation in Northern Ireland The Agreement that Wasn't

Northern Ireland

by HARRY BROWNE

At the beginning of this week the world was hailing an unlikely breakthrough in Northern Ireland. Elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly would go ahead, albeit six months late, and the talks between the Ulster Unionist Party and Sinn Fein had resulted in extraordinary long-reaching agreements about how the North would be governed after the elections. (Assuming the cooperation of voters in returning them as the two largest parties).

Among other things, it was reported that the parties had agreed that by April 2005, a former IRA adjutant-general, Gerry Kelly, would be Northern Ireland’s Minister for Justice, with responsibility for policing. The mind boggled. And on Monday night and Tuesday morning, the assembled politicians were confident that the British government would pour enough patronage into the North before the November 26th elections to ensure that sceptical unionist voters would cast their lots with such an apparently unpleasant scenario.

All that remained was what everyone called a ‘choreographed’ series of events over the course of Tuesday, with the key steps involving some IRA disarmament and the confirmation of that fact by the international body responsible for such ‘decommissioning’.

By Tuesday evening the exercise had failed, and journalists vied over choreography metaphors. "Riverdance without a rehearsal" probably captured best the widespread sentiment that the show had been ill-prepared, too much too soon.

With the distance of a few days, however, Tuesday’s collapse of the process looks less like a cock-up, and more like a trap, with the IRA as the prey. Unionist leader David Trimble halted the process on Tuesday in apparent injured innocence about the IRA holding out on decommissioning, and commentators as far afield as the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page have joined in the republican-bashing.

But it’s clear now that Trimble already knew what to expect from the IRA, but reckoned he, and the British government, could use the pressure of the ‘collapse’ to turn the screw and get more.

At issue is the question of confidentiality, and behind that the spectre of ‘surrender’. In order for unionists to accept Sinn Fein, the IRA-linked party, into a power-sharing government, they have needed to see signs of the IRA giving up its weapons and ‘the war’. But in order for Sinn Fein to avoid a split in its ranks, and (more dangerously) the ranks of the IRA, it needed to steer clear of a public arms hand-over, despite most of a decade when the IRA has been officially on ceasefire.

The means to square this circle is the ‘Independent International Commission on Decommissioning’, chaired by a Canadian general, John de Chastelain. This commission has been invited to witness, and vouch for, secret acts by which weapons are ‘put beyond use’.

The IRA carried out such an act this week, for the third time. The general said it was significant; he gave some additional details privately to Tony Blair and Irish prime minister Bertie Ahern, who agreed with him. But, de Chastelain said, the IRA had invoked its right to confidentiality and he could not provide an itemised list of weapons.

This lack of ‘transparency’ was Trimble’s breaking point, and the ‘breakthrough’ was abandoned, at least for the moment. However, by Thursday Trimble was admitting that he and the two government leaders knew all along that such shyness was likely. He relied, he said, on assurances "that the British government would strongly support us on the issues of timescale [a schedule for IRA winding-down] and transparency".

He was right, as Tony Blair quickly called for more decommissioning information to be released publicly. Bertie Ahern didn’t chime in public agreement, but behind-the-scenes efforts began to pressurise the IRA and de Chastelain on the issue.

The latter were holding out, to be sure. Late Thursday, a spokesman for the commission said the general and the other commissioners would quit if forced to reveal the details of disarmament without the IRA’s agreement. "With regards to confidentiality, if the commissioners were forced to disclose the inventory without the IRA agreeing to it, they would judge their position to be untenable."

The elections will still go ahead, but with no notion of how a power-sharing government might be agreed afterwards. Nationalist voters are likely to endorse Sinn Fein as their favoured representative, but it remains to be seen if Trimble’s initial apparent deal, then his conspicuous ‘standing up’ to the IRA, will gain him votes among unionists. They might still be inclined to support either his own party’s dissidents, or Ian Paisley’s more hardline Democratic Unionist Party, who will again accuse Trimble of having supped with the devil.

And all of this over an issue, decommissioning, which risks driving more republicans into factions that oppose such deal-making, who would not countenance any ‘surrender’, who could even reinvigorate ‘the war’. As Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams has warned: "One man’s ‘transparent act of decommissioning’ is another man’s public humiliation."

HARRY BROWNE writes for The Irish Times and CounterPunch and is a lecturer in the school of media at Dublin Institute of Technology. He can be contacted at harrybrowne@eircom.net