- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 1, 2005

“We are satisfied that the arms decommissioned represent the totality of the IRA’s arsenal,” said Canadian General John de Chastelain on Monday when, as head of the independent monitoring body, he confirmed the Irish Republican Army finally had destroyed its arms cache.

His conclusion was echoed by the two Catholic and Methodist clergymen who witnessed the destruction.

And it was accompanied by British and Irish government leaks to the effect that, after this “historic development,” the Northern Ireland power-sharing Executive, including Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness as ministers of the Crown, would soon be up and running again — probably by New Year.

Not before rain fell on this parade, however, from a cloud no bigger than a man’s hand.

In the same Monday press conference, Gen. de Chastelain qualified his conclusion, saying, “We can never be completely certain.” They had to rely to some extent on the IRA’s word.

His Finnish decommissioning colleague added to the uncertainty when he seemed to confirm no weapons destroyed dated later than 1996. The IRA is known to have acquired weapons in 1999 (one was used to murder a dissident.)

And in a third and especially significant wrinkle, a writer in the Guardian (the British newspaper most sympathetic to Irish republicanism) alleged a deal was forged behind Gen. de Chastelain’s back between the British government and the IRA that would allow the slightly former terrorists to retain side arms for self-defense.

What are we to make of these cross-currents? The smart money in Anglo-Irish journalism suggests the IRA destroyed the heavy stuff it no longer needs against the British Army. After all, the war against the British state is over. But it is quietly keeping smaller arms it needs to enforce its authority against dissenters in the Catholic ghettoes.

In the mordant words of Henry MacDonald in the Guardian: “These handguns … remind those inside the nationalist community who are not “on message” with Sinn Fein that to challenge the hegemony of the republican movement can still have fatal consequences.”

Still, the threat of bombing London apparently has ended. That is enough for London, Dublin and Washington to declare the IRA has purged its sins and its Siamese twin, Sinn Fein, therefore eligible to return to ministerial office.

Under the rules of power-sharing, however, such an outcome, requires consent of the unionist majority — and in particular of the Rev. Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party. He and other unionists still resist on grounds Sinn Fein-IRA should face a long penance of nonviolence before being trusted with power again.

Until two weeks ago such resistance would probably have prevailed. But the moral authority of the Protestant and unionist community has been seriously undermined by the “loyalist” riots across Northern Ireland a fortnight ago.

These began in Belfast but spread quickly to Newtonabbey, Carrickfergus, Lisburn, Larne, north Down and Ards. More than 140 bombs were thrown and 115 shots fired at police. Eighty-one police officers were injured. And, rather than spontaneous outbursts, the riots apparently were organized by Protestant organizations such as the Orange Order.

Why did the loyalists damage their own side so spectacularly? Insofar as the riots had anything like a rational cause, it was that “loyalists” felt London and Dublin had ignored the unionist majority. The governments had appeased Sinn Fein because the IRA was ready and able to use violence and intimidation. Very well, the loyalists would do the same and get respect too.

There is a grain of truth in this argument. British Minister Peter Hain confirmed as much when he listed the benefits to Protestants of the Good Friday power-sharing agreement. These included Dublin’s acceptance that Irish unity would need majority consent in the North; in other words, not tangible gains but avoidance of possible defeats and a very slight strengthening of the status quo. It is not very persuasive.

Whether Protestants had a small case is, however, beside the point. For while the IRA cleverly used violence and intimidation as political weapons, they cannot help the Protestants. The unionist or “loyalist” case is built on law and democracy. Whenever they abandon those principles and resort to riots and murder, they undermine the narrow ground on which they stand. And they suffer politically.

So unionist parties may find themselves dragged against their better judgment into sharing power with Sinn Fein because the “loyalist” paramilitaries have undermined their principled stand that only nonviolent democratic parties should share power.

If the power-sharing Executive is resuscitated, however, it will usher in the next stage of Ulster’s crisis. As long as the power-sharing deal stalled, it could be offered as a solution for Northern Ireland. Once firmly in place as a permanent structure of political power, however, its fatal weaknesses will become clear and eventually intolerable. Its viciously divisive effects on Northern Irish society will render it unworkable.

The Good Friday Agreement is essentially an exercise in multiculturalism. Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly must register a communal identity before they can participate in government. Any government must include representatives of both communities. Any political outcome must have be supported by majorities of both communities.

The first effect is extraordinary divisiveness. This sectarian power structure is intended to produce — and does so — policies that assign benefits on a strictly sectarian basis. It creates two entirely separate communities with separate “cultural identities” in Northern Ireland.

As writer Brendan O’Neill says on his Web site, www.spiked-online.com, this sectarianism has “nurtured the potential for angst, disgruntlement or even violence if one side feels it is left out of the loop.”

The second effect is to abolish any normal democracy. The power-sharing rules insist parties from both communities must always be in office. As a result, voters cannot choose or throw out a government. The parties get to enjoy power permanently. In practice, that means they share power with each other over the communities they theoretically represent. Within each community, party bosses rule.

The third effect follows — namely, entrenchment of criminal mafias in cultural or political disguise in working-class areas. Those small arms for the IRA’s self-defense will enforce its brutal will in Catholic ghettoes. Similarly “loyalist” mafias behind the riots have engaged in both lucrative racketeering and murderous battles reminiscent of the St. Valentines Day Massacre. The Independent Monitoring Commission recently reported five murders (and 15 attempted murders) were committed by the Ulster Volunteer Force in its turf fight with another loyalist terror group.

But since the power-sharing deal was fine-tuned to ensure political parties linked to these criminals get a freehold on political office, how likely is it that Northern Irish ministers would crack down seriously on them?

There are some temporary safeguards against this mafia rule. An independent monitoring body on political criminality soon will report to London. Independent-minded Irish Justice Minister Michael MacDowell threatens to use the law’s full force against political racketeering. And so on.

Even if the two governments risk obstructing restoration of the Belfast Assembly and Executive by cracking down on IRA and loyalist criminal gangs — and that is unlikely — the sectarian power-sharing structure would soon revive them.

So the next stage of Northern Ireland’s troubles is likely to unmask the power-sharing deal as a transitional arrangement — perhaps a transitional step to normal democracy, more likely one to a multicultural gangster state.

John O’Sullivan is editor-in-chief of the international affairs magazine, the National Interest.

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