Discussions aimed at reviving Northern Ireland’s dormant political institutions will take place this week in Scotland, but a deal is not assured.
DUBLIN — A report released last week gave a remarkably positive assessment of the Irish Republican Army’s (IRA) self-emasculation, 14 months after it declared an end to its three-decade war against Northern Ireland’s status as part of the UK.
The report, released by the Independent Monitoring Commission (IMC), an Irish-British intergovernmental watchdog set up to monitor Ireland’s paramilitary groups, stated: “It [the IRA] is now firmly set on a political strategy, eschewing terrorism and other forms of crime. In this process there has been a loss of paramilitary capability.”
However, various vested interests on the part of all protagonists may combine to scupper a potential deal this week, as the British and Irish governments and Northern Ireland’s main political parties discuss reviving the devolved government set up after the 1998 peace agreement.
The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) is the largest on the Protestant-British side of Northern Ireland’s communal divide – and is the last hold-out against a deal, which will be pushed vigorously by both governments and by Sinn Féin at St Andrews in Scotland this week.
Responding to the IMC report, British Prime Minister Tony Blair said: “The IRA has done what we asked [..] while issues like policing remain […] the door is now open to a final settlement.”
His Irish counterpart Bertie Ahern followed suit, saying: “I think it’s [the IMC report] as positive as anyone could have imagined.”
This will not satisfy the DUP. If a deal is reached, the DUP will partner with Sinn Féin – the party linked to the IRA – in Northern Ireland’s devolved government.
DUP leader Reverend Ian Paisley – founder of his own Presbyterian church and who was forcibly ejected from the European Parliament in 1988 for interrupting a speech by the late Pope John Paul II with catcalls of “Anti-Christ” – on Monday held his first-ever discussions with Ireland’s Catholic Archbishop Sean Brady on political issues in Northern Ireland.
This did not herald a volte-face regarding Paisley’s views on the IRA or Sinn Féin. As a self-styled socialist republican organization, Sinn Féin was never endorsed by Ireland’s Catholic Church, which condemned IRA violence.
After the meeting – described by both sides as “useful and constructive” – Paisley criticized the UK governments’ interpretation of the IMC report as inappropriately positive and not reflective of the contents, which he said did not indicate that the IRA was ready to disband or completely cease criminal activity that yields an estimated €15 million per annum on average.
The report detailed the IRA’s dismantling of some core units and its ending of recruitment, and looked at the long-term transition of the IRA over the past three years, rather than merely outlining changes since July 2005, when the IRA announced its war was over.
Differences remain on key issues.
Sinn Féin wants an amnesty for IRA men who remain in hiding pending criminal charges for terrorist activity. The DUP is unlikely to agree to this, given that its ascendancy in unionism came about after the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), historically Northern Ireland’s largest, was perceived by unionists as appeasing Sinn Féin, and was thus obliterated by the DUP in the 2005 UK general election.
Paisley used his hour with Archbishop Brady to ask that Catholics increase support for Northern Ireland’s police, deemed to have worked with unionist paramilitaries during the conflict and snubbed by Sinn Féin despite reforms since 1998. The DUP says it will not share power unless Sinn Féin supports the police service.
Ahern will see the talks as a welcome respite from recent cash donation controversies – and success in St. Andrews would be a huge boost to his domestic credentials with an election due by May 2007.
Blair’s leadership is coming to an end. With his historical legacy at stake, he will relish becoming the British prime minister who resolved the centuries-old “Irish Question,” something that eluded his predecessors.
Sinn Féin sees the IMC report as making DUP acceptance of power-sharing inexorable. Party leadership is working closely with the IRA (there is a personnel overlap) to cautiously dismantle the paramilitary organization in a manner that does not lead to splits or spoilers. Sinn Féin would revel in the trappings of power in Northern Ireland for the few months before the May 2007 election in the Irish Republic – when it hopes to acquire sufficient seats to participate in a coalition government.
A political rival remarked that if the word “no” was removed from the English language, Ian Paisley would have nothing to say. His instinct may be to recoil from the pressure he faces over the coming days if a deal is not in unionist interests.
The octogenarian Paisley has his own legacy to leave. He may want to sample life as Northern Ireland’s first minister, but he would prefer not to go down as a man that shared power with a historic enemy on unfavorable terms.
But if the talks fail, the 24 November deadline to restore devolution will pass, postponing local government indefinitely, hindering peace-building, and perhaps leading toward joint authority between Dublin and London.
Leading a vociferous campaign against joint authority may be more palatable – and more historically appropriate – for Reverend Paisley than determining Northern Ireland’s water charges or education system in partnership with Sinn Féin.Show