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November 9, 2001
Irish Arms
The IRA moves forward with decommissioningóbut some loyalists donít want peace.
Cathal McNaughton/Getty Images
David Trimble’s Ulster Unionist Party is bitterly divided.

What happens when a guerrilla army wants to gradually put their weapons “beyond use”—to fully embrace a political way forward—and their opponents won’t let them? In Northern Ireland, the answer is political chaos.

When Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams stated weeks ago that he was encouraging the IRA to begin the decommissioning of some of their arsenal, and within days the announcement came that the process had begun, many thought the unprecedented move would be rewarded by jubilation in the unionist community. After all, the decommissioning of IRA weapons has been a constant demand of unionist leaders since the official peace process began with the IRA ceasefire of 1994. It also had been a major barrier to consolidating the new political institutions established under the Good Friday Agreement, signed in 1998.

Adams said that the IRA gesture, unprecedented in its violent struggle to remove the British from Ireland, would deprive opponents of the peace process of their main argument. But strong elements within unionism have never reconciled themselves to sharing power with Sinn Fein or more moderate nationalists, preferring the certainties of continued conflict to what they perceive as inexorable nationalist “gains.”

David Trimble, still leader of a bitterly divided Ulster Unionist Party, called for his ministers to re-enter the Northern Irish Assembly after the IRA move. Whatever his flaws—in many ways he has been a reluctant leader—Trimble realizes the importance of working the political process and firmly believes that the union with Britain is safe. But as two members of his own party defected, again demanding more from the IRA, Trimble failed to achieve the majority of the unionist vote in the Assembly he needed to be re-elected first minister.

In the complex voting rules of the Assembly designed to ensure majority support from both communities, the lack of majority support from unionist members, which included anti-Good Friday followers of Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), meant that a more circuitous route for saving Trimble and the institutions had to be found.

In an act of political sleight-of-hand, the small “non-sectarian” Alliance Party agreed to redesignate some of its Assembly members as “unionist,” allowing Trimble the majority he needed to return as first minister. Anti-Good Friday unionists regarded the move as an indication of Trimble’s desperation, calling the whole process a “circus.” But others saw the Alliance Party’s actions as a healthy sign of a more malleable and fluid political identity in the face of a deeply polarized society. After the vote, which Paisley tried to block with a failed legal appeal, fighting broke out between nationalist and DUP Assembly members during a press conference.

But the political maneuvering can’t hide the fundamental fissure within the unionist community. Trimble’s UUP lost seats to Paisley in the last parliamentary election, and there is concern that in the next Assembly elections in 2003, the DUP will overtake Trimble. That would result in more demands for complete IRA disarmament and an attempt to undermine Sinn Fein’s democratic mandate.

And Adams has his own difficulties. While he never moves without thoroughly preparing the political ground beforehand, decommissioning of weapons, even to an independent body, has been difficult for many Republicans in the absence of Irish unity. His main concern has been to avoid a major split within the IRA that would send more volunteers into the arms of the Real IRA, a dissident group that opposes Adams and the peace agreement. Before a meeting of Sinn Fein’s governing body, Adams admitted that “the last week [of decommissioning] has been a hurtful one for many Republicans.” He added: “Decommissioning was an act of patriotism. Patriotism requires pain. The prize is a just and peaceful Ireland.”

Extremists continue to hamper the peace process. The Real IRA tried to explode a car bomb in Birmingham on November 3, not far from the location of a previous IRA bomb that killed 21 people in 1974. On the unionist side, recent rampages in North Belfast against Catholic youths attempting to attend school have been reminiscent of the ugliest periods during the American civil rights struggle.

While the Royal Ulster Constabulary has been renamed the Police Service of Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein has refused to serve on the public boards that oversee the police. While the moderate, nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party is serving, Sinn Fein believes more thoroughgoing reform is necessary before it will participate. Transforming the largely Protestant police into a representative and effective force could be the most important challenge Northern Ireland faces in the coming years. IRA and loyalist vigilantism and police collusion with loyalist paramilitaries has plagued both communities.

The IRA’s move was a bold one, even though it was made in the context of increasing political and moral pressure in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States. If the unionists and the British can be as bold, the last act of a grueling national tragedy may have opened.


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