- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 8, 2000

The past 18 months since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement have seen a remarkable change in almost every aspect of life here in Northern Ireland, change for the better.

The past nine weeks since devolution of political power from London on Dec. 2, 1999, have provided the evidence that we can work together, unionist and nationalist, Protestant and Catholic, in government for the betterment of people's lives.

People across Ireland, both North and South, have responded very positively to the new institutions established by the Good Friday Agreement. We have seen the appointment of a power-sharing executive of 12 locally elected ministers representing a full spectrum of political opinion. The new ministers are dealing effectively with issues that affect everyone including investment, employment, health and transport. New structures that embrace the whole of Ireland dealing with key common issues such as trade promotion and tourism have been created and are working for the mutual benefit of all.

Despite working together to express the will of the people through the full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, we have reached yet another crisis point, potentially the most serious to date.

But why are we facing this crisis? The issue that we must deal with is decommissioning of paramilitary arms. As part of the Good Friday Agreement, an international and independent commission was established to deal with the issue of illegal paramilitary arms by May 2000.

Every aspect of the Good Friday Agreement that established the way forward for power-sharing government in Northern Ireland is now being acted upon with the sole exception of decommissioning of paramilitary arms.

Last year Sinn Fein, on behalf of the Irish Republican movement, consistently argued that the IRA could not deliver arms before the setting up of a power-sharing Executive in Northern Ireland. This was a view that I, like many other people in Ireland, understood and I put much on the line at a personal level to ensure that these issues were faced up to.

On 2 July, 1999, the president of Sinn Fein said: "Our commitment is to move forward. We think it can be done but people need to take their courage in their hands. There is no point in jumping on your own."

The Mitchell Review that followed in November 1999 created a situation where political progress could be achieved by "jumping together" to address both devolution, through the creation of a power-sharing administration, and the immediate commencement of the decommissioning of paramilitary arms.

Last November David Trimble, the Unionist leader and Northern Ireland's first minister, took his courage in his hands and jumped to form a power-sharing administration. In a report on Dec. 10, 1999, Gen. John de Chastelain, chairman of the independent and international body established to deal with decommissioning, made an assessment that decommissioning of paramilitary arms would occur. However, despite this assessment and over nine weeks of devolved power-sharing government here in Northern Ireland, we still continue to be subjected to political ambiguities on this matter.

Sinn Fein and the Irish Republican movement have hidden behind concepts of "seismic shifts" in their attitude to arms decommissioning and their own interpretation of "jumping together." The time for such ruses and stratagems is over we need clarity. We all overwhelmingly agreed to make political progress through the Good Friday Agreement. Recent polls clearly demonstrate the desire of the Irish people on this matter, with over 90 percent in favor of decommissioning by paramilitary organizations now. Irish Republicans need to make their mind up on what political development they actually want. Can they not see that Sinn Fein is now at the heart of government in Northern Ireland? Can they not see the benefit of the new institutions including, the North-South bodies that are working for the mutual benefit of all?

Last May, in a speech to the Sinn Fein Party Conference, Gerry Adams said: "Maybe this British government, despite a good start when it came to power, is not up to the historic task facing it at this time because the only way forward is through Mr. Tony Blair [British prime minister] asserting the primacy of the peace process."

Perhaps Mr. Adams should now apply these words to himself. Are Mr. Adams and his colleagues in the Irish Republican movement up to the historic task facing them at this time in order to assert the primacy of the peace process?

For several days now I have stated that the suspension or collapse of the new and exciting institutions that have brought devolved government to the people of Northern Ireland would be a mistake. It will damage hopes of real political progress beyond recognition. I lived through such a similar situation in 1974 when the suspension of political powers and the collapse of a locally elected government in Northern Ireland took place, creating a legacy of violence and a political vacuum that we have only just left behind us.

The issue of decommissioning cannot continue to poison the political process. Gen. de Chastelain should urgently establish whether paramilitary organizations including the IRA are committed to the decommissioning of illegally held arms and should produce a practical timetable for actual decommissioning to take place.

What we need is clarity, what we need is certainty, what we need is commencement. If we have these, the suspension or collapse of devolved government in Northern Ireland need not and should not happen.

Seamus Mallon is deputy first minister of Northern Ireland’s new devolved government.

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