Sunday 1 October 2006

Disarmament and the Good Friday Agreement. On recent announcements by the IRA, verified by the De Chastelain Commission on September 26, 2005

In all of the reporting, commentary and analysis I've encountered so far on the recent IRA announcement a lot of the focus has been on the (apparently) luke-warm, less-than-ecstatic response from unionist politicians and the DUP in particular. It is surprising therefore that as yet no-one seems to have drawn the obvious conclusion. One wonders even, if this could be deliberate?

What has been remarkable about the reaction of unionism and the DUP is not their lack of embrace for the IRA's historic initiative. Rather it is the fact that they did not respond to it in some kind of triumphalist fashion, which obviously would have been disastrous had they chosen that course.

Think about it. Unionism and the DUP's arch-enemy, the IRA, have completely and unconditionally disarmed (according to General de Chastelain), having earlier declared an end to their military campaign. But no-one from the unionist camp is hailing it as a victory of any sort. There has been no flag-waving, insults, provocations or even any kind of one-upmanship from any quarter. In this sense it has to be said that the reaction has been generally quite respectful, and therefore positive.

I believe that this is firstly because unionism and the DUP represent a constituency of people who are fundamentally decent and don't want to re-open new wounds now that old wounds have a chance to heal.

Secondly it confirms that the DUP are on board in this new departure even though they have reservations and, officially at least, remain opposed to the Good Friday Agreement. It is to be expected that if they are to play a role in facilitating acceptance within their political constituency for the new dispensation that is on offer, they will want to do so on their own terms.

It has to be remembered that DUP leader, Ian Paisley, is actually viewed with suspicion within sections of unionism (those usually labelled 'loyalists') stemming back to the days of unionist protests against the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985. For reasons that I must confess are beyond my comprehension, it is perceived by some that he somehow betrayed these sections, sold out. Recent disturbances in loyalist communities may even be a reflection of this, were it the case for example, that word somehow filtered through that a big development was about to take place. But let's not speculate on people's motivations.

I think it is worth saying that there would be no point in any community or individual making triumphalist noises as a sad and terrible chapter closes. Because still one feels that the full story has yet to be told. For my own part, I strongly suspect that when it is told, the picture it will reveal will be one in which everyone of us, without exception, Irish and British, was the victim of duplicity, cunning and manipulation. In short the joke was on us all, but what a pity that it had to be such a tasteless one.

I also believe that the sceptics and dissidents (and there are some of these in the nationalist/republican camp too) to this new departure should be accorded the necessary breathing-space, and whatever time is necessary, to absorb the significance of these developments. In return they must agree not to use this breathing space to physically threaten or attack anyone. Or indeed to prepare for such attacks when circumstances might change in the future. There can be no such thing as 'an acceptable level of violence'.

Also the issue of 'allowing people time to absorb' should not be used as an excuse to hold up progress towards normalisation of civil life that continues to make strides despite periodic setbacks. On this latter question however, I think this can only be accomplished through the vigilance and conscious activity of the population as a whole, not through measures implemented 'from above'.

There is one issue that the sceptics have been raising on which one feels they may have a point. That is the lack of transparency, accountability and consultation in verifying the IRA's decommissioning. It has lead some to cast doubt on whether they really have 'gone away'. It can only be hoped that in the fullness of time these people will accept that, on this occasion, one wrong has managed to cancel out some previous wrongs, without for one moment denying that these wrongs should never have been committed in the first place.

I would go further and argue that it is the lack of transparency and accountability in how politics really works in the society that first fuelled the conflict, then sustained it over 30 years.

29th September, 2005

Versions of this post were published as 'Letters to the Editor' in the Irish Examiner newspaper of 3rd October, 2005, Village Magazine (Issue 54, 6-12 October, 2005) and Daily Ireland newspaper of 8th October, 2005.

Copyright © Oscar Ó Dúgáin, 2005

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