World Northern Ireland

A suspended state

A Canadian still hopes to find an IRA arms solution

Suzanne Breen February 21 2000
World Northern Ireland

A suspended state

A Canadian still hopes to find an IRA arms solution

Suzanne Breen February 21 2000

A suspended state

A Canadian still hopes to find an IRA arms solution

World Northern Ireland

The Stormont Estate in Belfast, home to Northern Ireland’s new assembly and executive, has taken on the air of a morgue. The parliamentary chamber is closed and the marble corridors of the Great Hall are deserted. The new government, set up amid great hope, has been suspended. The 12-member executive that was a mix of pro-British Unionists and ministers representing Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican

Army, wielded power for only two months. “Even Italian governments last longer,” said one assembly member.

Britain reimposed direct rule over the province last Friday after the IRA failed to turn in any of its weapons under a decommissioning scheme overseen by retired Canadian general John de Chastelain. The peace process began to unravel when he gave London a grim report on Jan. 31—that it would soon be logistically impossible for his inter-

national commission to fulfil its mandate of having paramilitary groups disarm by a May 22 deadline.

David Trimble, Northern Ireland’s Protestant First Minister and head of the Ulster Unionists Party, had threatened to resign rather than remain in office while the IRA retained its weapons. To prevent that, the British Parliament rushed legislation through last week to shelve the provincial government. Just before the suspension came into effect, Sinn Fein Leader Gerry Adams said a breakthrough on disarming was at hand, but others said the IRA will never turn over its weapons. “Only defeated armies decommission,” an IRA source told

Macleans, “and we are not defeated.” On Saturday, the Ulster Unionists said they would not return to the government until the IRA delivered a clear disarmament plan.

Sinn Fein politicians want the IRA to make at least a token gesture, but grassroots members are firmly opposed. Security officials fear hardline factions are planning a fresh campaign of violence. On the streets of Belfast, the mood has been grim. Sean McLoughlin, a 29-yearold labourer, expressed concern for his three-week-old son. “I hate to think he will grow up the way I did—with all the

shootings and bombings and hatred. I wanted a different future for him.” Politicians on all sides are desperately trying to salvage the peace process and the landmark Good Friday Agreement of 1998 that established the new government. Under a four-point plan being discussed before the suspension, de Chastelain would stay in his post for another year, potentially giving the IRA more time to disarm. Adams insisted the IRA was making a significant concession, and

De Chastelain later gave a more positive report to British and Irish leaders. “The [IRA] representative indicated to us,” he said, “the context in which the IRA will initiate a comprehensive process to put arms beyond use, in a manner as to ensure maximum public confidence.” But London pushed ahead, and Trimble insisted that the IRA had to be much more specific.

In a Belfast knick-knack store, shoppers displayed little optimism. They were busy snapping up coasters, wallets and key rings bearing Stormont images. “They believe this administration is over,” said a clerk. “And they want souvenirs.”

Suzanne Breen

in Belfast