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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

Seconds Out - Round 2005

Anthony McIntyre • 27 September 2005

When my chance came at yesterday's Culloden Hotel IICD press conference to ask a question of General John De Chastelain, I did not want to waste it on trying to prise out of him the specifics of the mode of putting weapons beyond use, or to obtain detail of the arms inventory. Other journalists had been doing that to no avail. The general seemed a determined character, eager to honour whatever agreement he had entered into with the IRA. I chose instead to address my question to the issue of trust which, it seems, is the only anchor weighty enough to institutionally moor the Good Friday Agreement for any length of time.

I put it to him that while there was little room to doubt his integrity, it was nevertheless continuously undermined by the IRA leadership who, on previous occasions where arms had been 'put beyond use', had briefed their volunteers that no IRA guns were in fact decommissioned. At family meetings, or at the more selectively attended IRA meetings, participants who used the term 'decommission' were firmly rebuked by leadership figures. Moreover, volunteers were sometimes told that de Chastelain knew he had to spoof that decommissioning had occurred in order to save the peace process and avert a certain return to war by the IRA, frustrated at progress being blocked by unionist demands for something they knew they would never get. On other occasions IRA volunteers were informed that dummy material had been placed in arms dumps so that the general could pretend he was decommissioning actual product. What I refrained from telling him was that other tales told to volunteers to reassure them that the general was putty in the hands of the IRA, would, if true, leave little room for doubt that roving our hills and rustic lanes was a Canadian Casanova, as comfortable in condoms as he was in water boots. I put it to him that when stories of this type filter out to unionists, ready at the best of times to overdose on suspicion, the effect on unionist confidence can be cataclysmic.

I felt it was more important to raise the question than to get an answer. Which was as well, because the general failed to respond, using up his words vainly trying to persuade me that the IRA had not surrendered. I felt it was vital to address the issue of trust because in my view Sinn Fein strategy is premised on ensuring that unionism can never attain the degree of trust necessary to allow it to settle down comfortably in government with the Adams led Provisionals. Yesterday's Culloden announcement did nothing to usurp that belief.

Sinn Fein played it shrewdly. Even when punched from corner to corner, the party's ring craft is outstanding. Having taken a hammering since the Northern Bank robbery last December and this January's murder of Robert McCartney, the party leadership decided the time was right to pull the same rabbit out of the same hat for a fourth and final time. Even if the rabbit were no longer tender, it would prove a tasty enough morsel for the London and Dublin governments, eager to sate themselves on some success. For Sinn Fein, what was meat to both governments should be poison to unionism.

By not allowing the DUP to have their nominee witness the decommissioning the IRA have ensured that Ian Paisley will reject the latest move as a cynical ploy. He will make sufficient noise to convince many observers that he is a troublesome blusterer who has no intention of doing a deal with Sinn Fein. Had the Reverend McCaughey been one of the witnesses and testified in the positive, then Paisley could hardly have downplayed the significance of De Chastelain's report. It was not in Sinn Fein's strategic intentions to allow that to happen. In accordance with the practice of ensuring an opponent is given enough rope with which to hang himself, it was a safe wager that Harold Good would prove easier for Paisley to reject. And so it proved to be. In terms of moving towards re-establishing devolved government yesterday's move is two years too late, and from Sinn Fein's point of view deliberately so.

For this reason, the terms of decommissioning outlined at yesterday's conference were not on offer in October 2003 when a bedraggled John de Chastelain appeared in front of camera to persuade nobody of anything. Had the general said then what he said yesterday, David Trimble could have entered the assembly elections of the following month with a deal he could sell to the unionist electorate. The then UUP leader had the will, ability and, if only just, the unionist mood in his favour. That did not happen and post-election the unionist constituency had returned a brand of unionism less likely to strike a deal but easier to blame for blocking any deal.

This gives Sinn Fein a certain edge when it moves to sell its wares in this year's market but at the market price of two years previous. Sinn Fein by continuously pitching its offer below the asking price of the unionists but in line with the political price fixers in London and Dublin has succeeded in keeping the peace alive as a process but without ever allowing it to bed down as a solution. The resulting instability, for which unionism can be blamed, fuels Sinn Fein's primary concern - it's expansionist project in the Republic.

The Culloden events have great potential to persuade many that the IRA has given up its war making capacity if measured in material terms. But the IRA at war is no longer the dilemma that faces unionism. It follows that the relinquishing of the weapons of war will not assuage unionist concerns, which have moved up a notch because decommissioning as a confidence building measure no longer has the potency it once possessed. Decommissioning is no longer the antidote to the endemic mistrust that plagues the unionist community. After three previous rounds, unionism is convinced that the IRA robbed the Northern Bank. It will be difficult to disabuse it of the notion that the same is likely to happen again.

Such a view is reinforced by the unlikelihood that the IRA has surrendered every weapon. The suspicion remains that sufficient hardware will be maintained in order to police dissent, intimidate rivals and let the criminal fraternity - to whom it is widely believed the IRA now farms out robberies - know who is boss. General De Chastelain stated that he believed all IRA weaponry had been decommissioned. His reason for saying this is that what he disposed of tallied with estimates by both governments of what the IRA held in its armoury. This was coupled with a statement from the IRA that it is no longer in possession of any weapons.

The difficulty for unionism in accepting these reassurances is that both governments have proven in the past that their intelligence assessment of the IRA was well below speed. They obviously did not know that the IRA was about to rob the Northern Bank last December otherwise they would have moved to pre-empt it. As for the word of the IRA, had the general asked the organisation was it responsible for the robbery the organisation would have said no.

Out of all this it emerges that the central dilemma to be resolved for unionism is that the existence of the IRA - rather than the organisation possessing weapons - is mutually irreconcilable with the Good Friday Agreement. Already we can see the shape of the debate that will bore the world for the foreseeable future and ensure that the interminable peace process trundles on: unionism demanding that the IRA disappear and Sinn Fein claiming the IRA is a figment of unionist imagination.


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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



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Index: Current Articles

27 September 2005

Other Articles From This Issue:

Analysis: Seconds Out — Round 2005
Anthony McIntyre

Reflections: British Victory at Culloden
Anthony McIntyre

Decommissioning Will Reveal Real Problem
Fr. Sean Mc Manus

Inclusive Republicanism
Maire Cullen

Wish List for Unionist Leadership
Dr John Coulter

Sunday World vs. Thugs
Mick Hall

Real and Relative Poverty
David Adams

How the Poor Live and Die
Fred A Wilcox

Poverty — Do You Get It?
Joanne Lightfoottlane

Defending Multiculturalism
Anthony McIntyre

15 September 2005

Treating the Symptoms Will Not Cure the Disease
N. Corey

We Shall Not Be Challenged
Anthony McIntyre

Riots for 'Recognition'
Brendan O'Neill

Dr John Coulter

Ireland: Nationalists Resist Loyalist Intimidation
Paul Mallon

Facing the Truth About the North
David Adams

Mowlam and the Status Quo
Proinsias O'Loinsaigh

Exports for the North Mean Exploitation for the South
Cedric Gouverneur

Snapshots from Occupied Bil'in
Greta Berlin

'Send in the Clowns!'
Mick Hall

Times Are A-Changing, Part II
Michael Youlton

Along Baltimore City's Peace Path
William Hughes

The Critic and the Clown
Anthony McIntyre



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