Seventy-eight-year-old bigot Ian Paisley holds the political fate of Northern Ireland in his hands as never before, and he’s not ready to let go.
Three days of talks in an English castle ended at the weekend with only Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) blocking progress to restored regional government for the North, nearly two years after its suspension. And the blockage is apparently over what, in historic terms, is a technicality about how answerable government ministers should be to the assembly.
That obstacle was a veritable side-issue. The real jaw-dropper, in Ireland and throughout the Irish diaspora, came when Tony Blair and his Irish equivalent, Bertie Ahern, told a press conference that–oh, by the way–disagreements over the timing and need for IRA commissioning had been pretty much settled.
That sensational news was nearly lost in the muttering. But it means that Sinn Fein (the political party that, essentially and despite convoluted denials, represents the IRA) brought some promises to the table that could, if kept, satisfy the DUP demands that the IRA should disarm completely and then disappear entirely.
It remains possible that 34 hours of negotiation led some people on both sides into verbal promises that will be hard to keep. But there’s little doubt now that the Irish-republican community must brace itself for the winding-up of the army that it once regarded as the only legitimate bearer of Irish governmental authority, tracing its succession back before the partition of the island to the 1916 Rising.
The leadership, notably party president Gerry Adams, has been preparing the ground, not least with nomenclature. Party sympathisers increasingly use the phrase “republican movement” (RM), traditionally the catch-all for party and army together, to signify that the community, post-settlement, will still constitute a movement rather than just a party–but won’t include an active military element.
Paisley isn’t quite crowing, but it appears that this hardliner has achieved what the two governments and David Trimble’s Ulster Unionist Party could not: something resembling the surrender of the IRA–though all sides will run a mile from public utterance of the S word. “Decommissioning” remains the preferred term, and Sinn Fein representatives are quick to point out that the final agreement will also involve demilitarisation from the State and loyalist side.
Nonetheless, all the media talk is of the IRA’s plans. The Irish Times reports Irish government sources as saying the IRA promised to put all its weapons verifiably beyond use by the end of this year. Other reports say the organisation has promised to “stand down”.
It is, of course, the logical outcome of the peace process that the RM entered into over the last decade or more, most of which time has included an IRA ceasefire. The party has had enormous electoral success in that time. But some republicans and others are shocked that some sort of deal seems to have been done with the ailing Paisley. Only a few days ago an observer remarked of the cadaverous Reverend: “Where there’s death there’s hope.”
Now, rather than Paisley’s mortality, it’s death knells for the IRA that fill the airwaves. Just a week ago the prospects for such a settlement seemed remote, especially after Sinn Fein publicly displayed a bugging device that it said had been found in its Belfast offices–presumably planted on behalf of the British authorities. Adams said he would present this evidence of “bad faith” to Tony Blair during the Leeds Castle talks.
Blair doesn’t seem too bugged. Since the DUP’s resistance on institutional arrangements meant he and Ahern couldn’t announce a conclusive deal at their press conference, he wasn’t indulging in any of his high-flown history’s-judgment rhetoric. But Blair seemed relaxed and happy with this peace-making distraction from the ongoing Iraq fiasco. His accent took on uncommonly-common northern (English) tones, e.g. “That’s not a matter fer ‘im an’ me anymore.”
The talks at Leeds Castle were meant to be the final, final chance to work out a power-sharing plan, but they had to end before Saturday afternoon because the venue was booked for a wedding. Gerry Adams and Ian Paisley certainly didn’t come out holding hands and posing for pictures–they didn’t even meet face to face–and there is still recrimination in the air. But if the IRA really said “I will” when asked if it could offer its self-destructive vow, all that remains is the detail of the pre-nuptial agreement.
HARRY BROWNE is a journalist and lecturer in the school of media at Dublin Institute of Technology: email@example.com