“History says, don’t hope on this side of the grave. But then, once in a lifetime the longed for tidal wave of justice can rise up, and hope and history rhyme.”
– Seamus Heaney from The Cure At Troy.
For a brief time in August, hope and history rhymed in Northern Ireland.
The IRA made a significant move towards putting their weapons beyond use and the hope of a permanent peace seemed tantalizingly close.
It was not to be. The Unionists, who have made “decommissioning” a war-cry since the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998, rejected the IRA offer out of hand.
This is the second time that the Unionists have cried wolf on decommissioning, which raises the question in the minds of most Irish Americans, was decommissioning ever the issue?
Northern Ireland Secretary of State Peter Mandelson dissolved the Assembly even as he knew that an IRA deal was in the works. And John Reid, who followed Mandelson as the British point man in the North, did the same when the Unionists rejected the recent move by the IRA.
In the face of the Unionist rejection and the suspension of government, the IRA withdrew their offer and instead of hope and history rhyming, a storm of controversy has been created around Sinn Féin. Forgotten in the hue-and-cry is the fact that the IRA made a significant move on decommissioning and the Unionists rejected it.
Interested Irish Americans want to know why Unionists rejected the IRA offer. Do the British/Unionists really want to share power with the Nationalists, or was it something they were forced into by the White House making much of the IRA ceasefire and sending the American George Mitchell to chair the talks?
The British never wanted inter-party talks without decommissioning. Back in 1995, the Irish-British summit was canceled because the IRA did not fulfill the “gesture” on decommissioning required by then Northern Secretary Sir Patrick Mayhew. Martin McGuinness’ response at the time was to say that “there would be no decommissioning without a political settlement.”
The White House stepped in by finding a solution that did not demand an immediate giving up of arms. When the Agreement was signed in 1998, it was decided by all parties that the two “thorny” issues of policing and decommissioning would be handled separately.
But are decommissioning and policing the obstacles that they are touted to be. Or is the real problem the fact that the two men in charge of these issues are not being allowed to do their jobs?
Chris Patten served the British as the last colonial governor of Hong Kong. General De Chastelain is a Canadian diplomat and soldier, whose Scottish-born parents worked for British Intelligence during the war. Given these credentials, it took a leap of faith for Nationalists to put their trust in these men but they went along with it. And what did they get in return?
Patten is overruled on policing. De Chastelain’s work on decommissioning is ignored. And by pulling down the government whenever they want, the British are proving that not only is the Unionist veto still in effect, but that it is no longer possible to separate the British from the Unionists.
With Jeffrey Donaldson, who will take over as Official Unionist Party leader if David Trimble is not reelected, now saying that even if the IRA do decommission it is not enough, it would seem, from the outside, that everything is being done to break the IRA ceasefire and destroy the Good Friday Agreement.
What would be the advantages of such a move? Is it possible that the huge gains by Sinn Féin in the last election made a United Ireland more of a reality? In the situation of a majority vote, the Unionists, if they are to abide by the Good Friday Agreement, would have to go along with it.
Meanwhile, in the interests of peaceful co-existence the Unionists haven’t decommissioned so much as a top hat or a sash, or given up a measly march. And the Loyalists are not showing any signs that they are putting their arms beyond use. Indeed, this year has produced a murderous internal war in their own ranks, and the violence against Catholics – 180 sectarian incidents so far this year, is ever increasing.
While Unionist intransigence, and Loyalist violence, is barely mentioned (at least in the American media), Sinn Féin is being vilified, firstly, because of the IRA withdrawing their offer, secondly, because three alleged IRA men have been picked up in Columbia (conspiracy theorists would point to the British/ Columbian government connections and cite British Intelligence at work), and lastly, for not signing on to the new policing plan, which still does not include all of Patten’s recommendations.
You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to see the history of police brutality waged against the Republican/Nationalist community, and to understand why all of Patten’s recommendations are deemed necessary by Sinn Féin! Remember John Stalker who reported on the RUC’s “shoot-to-kill” policy back in 1985?
The real question now is not if the IRA can be brought to the table once again, given their leadership in calling the 1994 ceasefire, it is to be hoped they can, but whether the Unionists really want decommissioning, and if they were ever really serious about power-sharing.
It is the Unionists who now hold the peace of Northern Ireland in their hands, not the IRA. Hopefully, they will find it in their conscience to make the sacrifices necessary for peaceful co-existence in Northern Ireland. Too many people have died for there not to be such hope “on this side of the grave.” ♦