World

Straight Shooter

Throughout Northern Ireland's tortuous peace process, Canada's John de Chastelain has won respect from all sides

Barry Came December 6 1999
World

Straight Shooter

Throughout Northern Ireland's tortuous peace process, Canada's John de Chastelain has won respect from all sides

Barry Came December 6 1999

Straight Shooter

World

Time rests lightly upon the shoulders of John de Chastelain. Maybe it has something to do with the uniform, the one he wore for 40 years, serving not once but twice as Canadas top soldier. He is not wearing it on this particular afternoon, sitting in the spartan office he occupies on the Newtownards Road on the outskirts of Belfast. But it is there in spirit, in the military bearing, the crisp language and the cool, concise tones he uses to describe yet another critical moment in the search for peace in Northern Ireland. In just three days, 858 members of the Ulster Unionist Party’s ruling council would have it in their collective power to sink the entire peace effort, wasting years of patient endeavour, not least by the general. Yet in the midst of what is clearly a gathering crisis, he remains unflappable. “The clock’s ticking,” he says in his soldierly way. “But there’s time. We can still get the job done.”

The job is not easy, collecting and dismantling the guns that have filled to overflowing the graveyards—and prisons— in Northern Ireland for close to three decades. De Chastelain

has been toiling at the task for two years, ever since he was appointed chairman of the inelegantly titled Independent International Commission on Decommissioning. In that period, he has not managed to “decommission” much: a grand total of four submachine-guns, two rifles, two pistols, two pipe bombs and one sawed-off shotgun. But de Chastelain holds the key to unlocking the door to peace in the troubled province. And last week, he stood closer than he has ever been, measuring his prospects for success with his usual calm deliberation. “There’s a chance it might happen,” he says, “probably a little better than 50 per cent. If it does, we’re on target.” And if it doesn’t? He answers with pursed lips, raised eyebrows.

The retired Canadian general had good reason to be circumspect. He delivered his comments as he awaited the outcome of one of those crucial gatherings that have marked the agonizingly slow progress of the Northern Ireland peace process. On Saturday, David Trimble, the province’s first minister-designate, convened a session of the ruling council

Throughout Northern Ireland's tortuous peace process, Canada's John de Chastelain has won respect from all sides

of the Ulster Unionist Party he leads. He was seeking authorization to proceed with a new deal brokered by former U.S. senator George Mitchell during 10 weeks of exhaustive talks designed to revive the stalled implementation of the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement. Under the plan, Trimble abandoned his party’s long-standing policy of “no guns, no government”—ending his opposition to allowing Sinn Fein, the political arm of the Irish Republican Army, into a power-sharing provincial government until the IRA had at least made a start on decommissioning its arsenal. In return, there was a tacit commitment by Sinn Fein and the IRA to begin handing over arms to de Chastelains commission days, perhaps weeks, after joining the new government.

As last Saturday’s Unionist conclave drew closer, however, doubts mounted over Trimble’s ability to sell the project to his badly riven party, raising the unsettling prospect not only of Trimble’s political demise but also of the scuttling of the Good Friday agreement itself, probably for good. In the end, party members agreed—by a vote of 58 per cent in favour—to support Trimble, but only after the leader consented to reconvene the council next February for a “reassessment.” In effect, the Ulster Unionists have given the IRA two months to begin disarming. “We’ve done our bit,” declared a relieved Trimble after the vote. “[Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams], it’s over to you. We’ve jumped, you follow.”

Trimbles narrow triumph breathes new life into the Good Friday accords, clearing the way for de Chastelain to finally tackle the job he was appointed to perform. But it also marks a small victory for the general himself, a confirmation of the policy of even-handed, almost rigid neutrality he has doggedly pursued since he assumed his post in December, 1997. For there is no doubt that de Chastelains cool manner and personal probity played a role in persuading doubting Unionists to accept Trimble’s gamble that the IRA stalwarts will eventually surrender their arms. The new British cabinet minister in charge of Ulster affairs, Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Mandelson, recognized as much in his attempts to sell the Mitchellsponsored deal to the province’s skeptical Protestant community. In speech after speech, he reassured the Protestants that the IRA would disarm because, as he told one Belfast audience last week, “they know that Gen. John de Chastelain is a man of complete integrity, who will not be put off by prevarication, or pretend that black is white. He will tell it as it is.” Throughout his tenure as head of the decommis-

sioning authority, as well as during the two years he served on the Mitchell commission that brokered the Good Friday agreement, de Chastelain has maintained a reputation for straight talk—sometimes to the discomfort of both the British and Irish governments that appointed him. There are still functionaries in the British Northern Ireland office who complain, as one privately muttered to Macleans, about “your general’s not always helpful attitudes.” Last summer, as the politicians in London and Dublin sought desperately to resurrect a near-comatose peace process, de Chastelain was believed to have come under pressure to fudge his lack of progress on decommissioning. The general, circumspect as always, will only admit that his initial report last July “was not quite what everybody wanted.” After a moment’s deliberation, he adds: “We could not afford any accusations of dissembling. That would have made our job impossible. We need the confidence of all sides here.”

The general certainly appears to have that, which is in itself something of a surprise given his background. His surname is Huguenot, betraying his French Protestant roots. Now 62, de Chastelain was born in Bucharest, the Romanian capital, the son of a Scottish petroleum engineer and an American-born mother. Both of his parents were British spies. His father, attached to the British army’s storied Special Operations Executive during the Second World War, was captured behind the lines in Romania after parachuting into the country. His mother, a linguist, spent the war years working first for Sir William Stephenson, the celebrated Winnipeg-born agent code-named Intrepid, then at the London headquarters of MI-6, Britain’s overseas intelligence service.

After growing up in Britain, de Chastelain immigrated to Calgary in 1955 to join his parents. At 18, he enlisted as a private in the Calgary Highlanders, then enrolled as an officer cadet at the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ont., graduating in I960 with a degree in history. “It’s not the sort of background many in Ulster would find acceptable,” he ruefully admits. “I’m British-born, attended the British army’s staff college, have parents who were with British espionage and, to top it all off, I’m a Presbyterian.” Initially, objections about de Chastelain did emanate from the Roman Catholic, staunchly Irish republicans in Sinn Fein. But those early complaints are never voiced now, by Catholics or Protestants. In Northern Ireland, that is a boast few others can make.

Barry Came in Belfast