All parties involved in the Northern Irish peace process have spent a lot of time this week denouncing an IRA proposal that the paramilitary group now says doesn’t exist and never did. The proposal in question was the IRA’s last minute offer made to the disarmament commission headed by Canadian General John de Chastelain; it was made in the hope of averting suspension of the Northern Irish executive. The offer which hasn’t been made public and has since been withdrawn by the IRA provided the context in which the IRA would disarm. Mr. de Chastelain hailed it as a positive development. Speculation in the press said the offer would link IRA disarmament to a scaling down of the British security forces. With so much energy expended on proposals that could move the peace process forward, the repeated denials or denouncements of such a plan made by the IRA, the British army, and the British government begged an answer to the question of what conditions would cause the IRA to prove its commitment to the Good Friday accord’s disarmament requirement.
As Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams is quickly discovering, at least parts of the peace process may have to move forward without the paramilitary group he has so often defended. “I certainly think the time for Sinn Fein to be a messenger on this arms issue is over or almost over,” he said. “At some point, you have to say to yourself ‘why am I doing this?’ ” he told the Irish Post on Feb. 24. It’s about time he made this discovery.
Trust cannot be built as long as there are parties within a Northern Irish executive that have links to paramilitary groups. “The war is over,” are the words needed for peace. “I want to hear those words from each of the political parties who are linked to paramilitary organizations, but better still … I want to hear it from the IRA. They have got to say that the war is over and better still, to show it with their actions,” Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Peter Mandelson told reporters in Washington last week.
With the IRA renewing loyalties this week to its Catholic Republican constituents and reiterating its commitment to not work with the disarmament commission, the rest of the players in the peace process have little choice but to move forward with those aspects of the agreement that are not being held up by the IRA’s stubbornness. As an Irish Times reporter aptly pointed out, there are 25 of the 35 pages of the accord where progress can be made without the executive in place. Making the criminal justice review system a nonpartisan one, implementing police reforms, and improving human rights conditions are just a few areas where there is possibility for both parties, the British and the Irish, to mutually progress.
To succeed in even those reforms, the will for peace must come from within the ranks of Catholic Republicans and Protestant Unionists; it cannot be forced by the British or Irish. “We’re not just back to square one, we’re back to square one minus, because the distrust factor has increased,” Adrian O’Neill of the Irish Embassy told The Washington Times last Tuesday.
But as long as the IRA cares more about saving face with its constituents than on the status of the peace process as a whole, that distrust will continue. The British government has already shown trust by normalizing its security presence in Northern Ireland. If, even after the Unionists agreed to form an executive with the IRA’s political wing Sinn Fein, the paramilitary group has any question as to who has already blindly trusted whom, it should review the statistics: “Twenty-six Army bases and installations closed or demolished. Military patrols down by two-thirds,” Mr. Mandelson recited Wednesday. “Fewer service personnel on operational duties in Northern Ireland than at any time since 1970.”
Now that even Gerry Adams is tired of defending the IRA, let’s hope the paramilitary group gets the message and realizes that the future lies with the Good Friday accord. The IRA has to do the math on the concessions made by the other side. The important thing to remember is that peace is not a zero-sum game.