World

At the brink of collapse

Arms report may shred Northern Ireland's solution

Barry Came February 14 2000
World

At the brink of collapse

Arms report may shred Northern Ireland's solution

Barry Came February 14 2000

At the brink of collapse

World

Arms report may shred Northern Ireland's solution

By all accounts, John de Chastelain's long-awaited report was thorough, and brutally frank. The retired Canadian general is understood to have painted as optimistic a picture as possible of the effort to permanently silence the guns in Northern Ireland. He told British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Irish counterpart, Bertie Ahern, that there were some “positive factors,” not least the Irish Republican Army’s “unequivocal support” for the tortured political peace process in the troubled province. But de Chastelain made no attempt to evade bleak reality. With one minor exception, neither the IRA nor any of Ulster’s other paramilitary bands have yet surrendered any arms—not a gun, not a grenade, not a single bullet.

It was not what Blair and Ahern wanted to hear. For the two leaders, de Chastelains news was so upsetting that the report he delivered in the early hours of last Tuesday remained unpublished at week’s end. But the shock it created continues to reverberate, threatening to demolish the edifice that finally offered

a promise of peace to Northern Ireland. Barely two months after the feuding Catholic and Protestant communities began to share political power in a 108member elected assembly and a 12member executive, the endeavour is on the brink of collapse. “It’s all hanging by a thread,” warned a sombre Blair. “We are in a moment of crisis, a serious crisis.” At issue is the IRA’s continuing refusal to “decommission” any of its arms before the May 22 deadline envisioned in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that created the Northern Ireland assembly and executive. Last November, Ulster Unionist Leader David Trimble won the agreement of his reluctant Protestant party to join that executive, vowing to resign as Northern Ireland First Minister if the IRA had not made a start on scrapping its arsenal by February. When de Chastelain, chairman of the body charged with monitoring the decommissioning process, issued his damning report, Trimble signalled his intention to step down, a move that would almost certainly cripple, probably

permanently, the entire peace process.

Last week, the authorities in London, Dublin, Belfast and even Washington embarked on a frantic salvage effort. In London, the British government introduced legislation in the House of Commons to restore direct rule in Ulster, suspending the province’s assembly and executive by the end of this week unless there is at least a gesture from the IRA. In Dublin, Ahern initiated direct discussions with the IRA’s shadowy leadership and with Sinn Fein, the political wing. Washington pitched in with appeals to both sides in Northern Ireland as well to the IRA’s supporters in the United States. And in Belfast,

Trimble and his Ulster Unionists were being urged to accept some kind of compromise short of an actual arms surrender.

As for de Chastelain, despite the death in Canada last month of his 89year-old mother, the general has agreed to stand by on the chance, admittedly slim, that he can offer a more promising view of Northern Ireland’s future.

Barry Came in London