The hopes that were raised in the latest advances in the peace process were dashed as Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble criticized the transparency of IRA decommissioning and said he was “putting the process on hold.”
Trimble demanded a more explicit statement from the IRA on the number and type of arms it put beyond use. But the IRA and Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Féin, argued that many of the details of decommissioning were agreed to be kept confidential between the IRA and former head of the Canadian Army General John de Chastelain, who is overseeing the weapons destruction.
De Chastelain is heading up the IICD (Independent International Commission on Decommissioning) and he confirmed that he had witnessed the latest IRA decommissioning event. He said, “How much is it? It’s three events worth, it’s more than we had in the first two events and we are going to press for more. We can’t talk about the methods but [the IRA] renders arms permanently inaccessible or permanently unusable in accordance with our remit.”
De Chastelain gave a brief list of the sorts of arms involved, without giving an exact inventory. He said the terms of his engagement meant he would give the governments a detailed inventory of arms destroyed only when the process was complete. He did confirm that the destruction of the weapons took place on the island of Ireland and that it took a matter of hours for them to be retired.
But Trimble insisted that the IRA put in place a timescale for the decommissioning of the remainder of its arsenal. He argued that the IICD had failed to create confidence in the Unionist community, but not all members of Trimble’s party agreed with him. Outspoken Ulster Unionist MP David Burnside threw a spanner into the works when he said that the IRA’s decommissioning event under the eye of de Chastelain was a “significant event.” He said, “Obviously it was a substantial act of decommissioning. There is no doubt about that. We should recognize that. It is progress and it is movement in the right direction. (But) I want to know when is the end of decommissioning,” he said.
Before Trimble pulled the plug on the process, Adams had said that Sinn Féin’s position was one of absolute and total commitment to exclusively democratic and peaceful means of resolving differences. He was committed to bringing an end to conflict on the island, “including physical force Republicanism.” The IRA released a statement saying that Adams accurately reflected their position. It read, “He also referred to the issue of weapons. The IRA leadership is committed to resolving this issue. In line with our stated position, we have authorized our representative to meet with the IICD with a view to proceeding with the implementation of a process to put arms beyond use at the earliest opportunity. We have also authorized a further act of putting arms beyond use. This will be verified under the agreed scheme.”
But after Trimble put things on hold, both British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern were left to discuss how to get things back on track when they met at Hillsborough Castle. The leaders had both been expecting the process to be moving forward and were hoping to sign a new deal when they arrived at the Castle, only to learn that Trimble had lambasted the decommissioning process and stalled talks.
Ahern warned that removing confidentiality on decommissioning was more likely to undermine rather than enhance the peace process. He said, “If the confidentiality which enables Gen de Chastelain to proceed with his task were lifted by the governments, it could have the effect of damaging the prospects of fully resolving the arms issue in the longer term.”
The latest breakdown of negotiations has also threatened Northern Ireland assembly elections, which are due to take place on November 26. The Assembly and cross-party executive have been suspended in Northern Ireland since last October after Ulster Unionists threatened to pull out their ministers in protest at fresh evidence of IRA activity. The most recent events could further prevent the return of devolved government. ♦