Prospect of new deal recedes

by David Granville

FOR A few brief moments in early December it looked as if there was a chance that people in the north-east corner of Ireland would be in receipt of an early Christmas present in the shape of a comprehensive agreement to revive and secure the suspended Good Friday power-sharing institutions.

In the end, a package concocted by the British and Irish governments in the wake of the failed Leeds Castle talks, aimed at addressing outstanding issues of concern to both Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party, foundered over the Ian Paisley's insistence on photographic proof of the destruction of IRA weapons and the 'humiliation' of the IRA. All parties, including the DUP, agreed that they had come a long way and that agreement was close. Just how close soon became clear.

On 7 December, Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams issued a statement insisting that his party could "say yes to the political package" on the basis that the fundamentals of the Good Friday agreement "including its power-sharing, all-Ireland and equality provisions" had been defended.

Progress on a range of other key issues, understood to include further British demilitarisation and plans for the transfer of policing and justice powers from London to the Northern Ireland assembly, had also been achieved, he suggested.

Referring to the question of IRA arms, the resolution of which he insisted was a matter for the IRA and the international decommissioning body headed by retired Canadian general John de Chastelain, he remained confident that "in the context of a comprehensive agreement" the IRA would "deal with issues that are its responsibility". However, Adams was equally clear that the IRA would not "allow itself to be humiliated".

On 9 December, the IRA issued its own statement, stressing that it had been prepared to support a comprehensive agreement and put all its remaining weaponry beyond use by the end of the year. However, it could not accept Paisley's demand for photographic evidence, which it insisted would reduce their contribution "to an act of humiliation".

The IRA statement also confirmed that it had been prepared to allow two clergymen to observe the decommissioning process in an attempt to further enhance public confidence; that it was preparing to move into a new, peaceful "mode" and that IRA volunteers were to be given instructions not to engage in activities which might endanger the new agreement.

The key points of the IRA's statement had originally emerged the previous day when, in an attempt to provide fresh impetus to the now damaged initiative, the British and Irish governments released documents and statements which would have been published had a new deal been achieved.

A joint government document confirmed that a "basis for agreement had been reached on the key issues" resulting in the basis for a "the early restoration" of the Northern Ireland assembly and the "full operation of the North-South (all-Ireland), East-West (Ireland- Britain) arrangements".

The statement to have been released by the DUP was particularly interesting given the Paisley's previously stated desire to destroy or 're-negotiate' the original Good Friday deal out if existence.

The DUP statement indicated that the party would "operate and participate in all the new arrangements" following confirmation that IRA paramilitary activity had ceased. It pledged to urge loyalist paramilitaries to engage with the international decommissioning body in an attempt to remove all illegal weapons from Northern Ireland and called upon them to end all paramilitary and criminal activity.

The main unionist party also gave its support to the transfer of policing and judicial powers from Westminster to Stormont, backed to action aimed at tackling "sectarianism, racism and intolerance" and proposed to "seek agreements for a bill of rights in Northern Ireland".

While some of this, particularly in relation to any committment to tackle sectarianism, racism and intolerance will be difficult to take at face value, it is nevertheless a far cry from the DUP's past anti-Good Friday position and, as such, to be welcomed.

However, no one should underestimate Paisley's political guile or forget his immediate political objective of consolidating his party's position within Ulster unionism at the expense of David Trimble's nominally pro-Good Friday Ulster Unionist Party. For the DUP, the coming general election remains critical. Paisley is unlikely to make any move prior to this taking place which would provide ammunition for his unionist rivals.

Although there will undoubtedly be renewed efforts to get the deal back on track in the New Year, it seems doubtful that Paisley will shift from his current position unless he is able to parade himself before the unionist electorate at the coming general election as the one who finally forced the IRA to surrender. Hence the emphasis on humiliating the IRA.

Paisley knows full well that there is absolutely no chance of the IRA agreeing to such a demand and that there is a good chance that this means that any agreement on reviving the Good Friday institutions is still some way down the line.

However, pressure from the British government and the IRA's offer to put its remaining arms verifiably beyond use has undoubtedly caused the DUP leader some difficulties, forcing him to move, as the DUP statement published by the two governments shows, much further towards accepting the fundamentals of the Good Friday power-sharing arrangements than he would otherwise have liked or have been willing.

Unfortunately, the two governments threw the DUP a lifeline prior to the Leeds Castle talks by raising the issue of photographic evidence of IRA decommissioning. Since then, Paisley has clung to it with tenacity and succeeded in getting the two governments to include it in the terms of the recently proposed agreement.

The issue of photographs, like the issue of silent IRA arms before it, is yet another red herring aimed at putting off the inevitability of power sharing with Sinn Fein.

Interviewed on BBC radio, former Guardian picture editor Eamonn McCabe stressed that photographic evidence was not always the most effective or reliable form of proof - a sentiment with which former Daily Mirror editor Piers Morgan could also no doubt agree in the light of the circumstances surrounding his departure from his previous job.

Photographic doctoring has been around for many decades and the advent of sophisticated computer software has made it even easier to deceive. While it is possible to believe that a photograph represents a moment of reality captured for all time, this is not necessarily the case.

Of course, it is also possible to deceive the human eye, but who exactly, apart from Mr Paisley, would be prepared in these circumstances to doubt the integrity and competence of a retired Canadian army general and his decommissioning staff or the impartiality of two clergymen, one Protestant, one Catholic?

Ironically, Paisley's biggest fear now is that his ace may be trumped by the IRA, working with the decommissioning body, unilaterally putting its arms beyond use. The DUP leader insists that any move by the IRA to decommission without photographic evidence would have "very serious consequences in respect to the DUP's attitude to other elements of the comprehensive agreement".

This reminds me of Paisley's reaction to an IRA ceasefire in the 1990s, I forget exactly which one, to which he responded: "This means war".

While Paisley and the DUP could complain about having been given insufficient 'proof' of decommissioning, it is doubtful that this would hold much sway with any of the other major players or with the majority of people on either side of the border, whose most likely reaction would be to welcome any such move by the IRA.

The reality is that Ian Paisley's insistence that Irish republicans must be 'humiliated' and wear 'sackcloth and ashes' for their part in the bloody conflict which plagued the six counties of Northern Ireland for nearly 30 years is all that stands between total IRA decommissioning' and the revival of power-sharing institutions established under the 1998 Good Friday agreement.

It's a strategy that Paisley will keep up until at least after the coming general election unless the British government is prepared to break with the tradition of upholding the position of political unionism whenever there is a crisis.

British proconsul Paul Murphy has indicated that if the DUP and Sinn Fein fail to reach an agreement on reviving the Good Friday process, new assembly elections could be called in the New Year.

Yet it is doubtful whether such a development would be welcomed by either politicians or the six-county electorate given that they only recently went to the polls to elect a new assembly.

It is also difficult to see exactly how this could contribute to breaking the current deadlock since both the DUP and Sinn Fein could be expected to strengthen their respective positions at the expense of David Trimble's nominally pro-agreement Ulster Unionist Party and the middle-class nationalists of the SDLP.

While its not impossible that a unilateral move by the IRA would wrong foot Paisley and the DUP, the only likely way out of the current impasse is for the British government to make it clear to the dominant unionist party that there is no hope of securing an agreement which includes photographic evidence of decommissioning or the humiliation of republicans.

However, this in itself is unlikely to succeed in moving the process forward unless the DUP are also made to understand that the current stalemate blocking the implementation of the Good Friday reforms is equally unacceptable.

Although both governments are against the idea at present, failure to secure a viable agreement between the parties in Northern Ireland could yet result in a form of joint British and Irish sovereignty to take the Good Friday process forward.

In the meantime it would appear that attempts by the DUP, backed by the Police Service of Northern Ireland and other British security elements, to put the republicans in the frame for the £26.5 million pre-Christmas Northern Bank robbery suggests that applying even greater pressure to republicans at a time of crisis, rather than challenging the unreasonable demands of the unionism, is likely to remain the preferred preference of the Blair government in the coming period.

Of course, there's always a possibility that individuals with republican connections were involved in the Northern Bank theft. Even if this eventually turns out to be the case, to suggest that it was an officially sanctioned IRA operation, conducted with either the approval or knowledge of Sinn Fein leaders Martin McGuinness or Gerry Adams, is beyond credibility given their political investment in the Good Friday process.

It is far more likely that we are witnessing a continuation of attempts to discredit Sinn Fein in the eyes of the electorate on both sides of the Irish border. Such efforts, which have so far proved a resounding failure, have included unsubstantiated allegations of republican involvement in the Castlereagh break-in and a Stormont spy ring. The torrent of unsubstantiated allegations of republican involvement in organised crime in the Republic, which have emanated from right-wing Irish minister Michael McDowell over the past few years, follows a similar pattern.

Significantly, allegations of republican wrongdoing invariably intensify in the run up to key elections. With Sinn Fein looking set to make further gains at the expense of the SDLP in the coming Westminster elections, more of the same can be expected in coming months. None of which bodes well for an early revival of power-sharing and the Good Friday institutions.

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This document was last modified by David Granville on 2005-01-07 16:09:12.
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