Irish gifts - sales benefit the Newshound

Why destroying one rusty gun will be a huge step

by Gary Kent

Tony Blair's historic speech to the Irish Parliament showed the progress that has been made in carrying out the Belfast Agreement. Everyone is taking their responsibilities seriously. But unless terrorist groups deliver decommissioning, they will be left out in the cold - as Taoiseach Bertie Ahe rn s no-nonsense statement underlined.

"I grant what we did was contrary to all our actions and to everything we stood for. But it admirably served its purpose - affording Fianna Fail immediate access to Leinster House and subsequently to the levers of power."

This was Eamon de Valera at his most pragmatic in 1927. He swallowed hard, formally swore allegiance to the British Crown and took his seats in the Irish Parliament. Fianna Fail went on to take state power. De Valera was Taoiseach and President for the best part of four decades.

The great Irish republican leader's actions should be carefully studied by Gerry Adams. De Valera's sticking point was the oath. Adams' sticking point is decommissioning.

Without decommissioning, Sinn Féin leaders shouldn't become Ministers. It would undermine the Belfast Agreement. The Agreement is a complex and interlocking compromise. But it is working on most fronts.

David Trimble and Seamus Mallon are very near to agreeing on how power-sharing will work. So much for the begrudgers who say that Unionists don't want Catholics in power.

Trimble and Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern have agreed the scope and scale of new north-south bodies. So much for the cynics who say that Unionists want to keep the Republic at arms' length.

Everyone has moved far and fast to keep their side of the Belfast bargain but when it comes to decommissioning, the exceptions are Sinn Féin/IRA and its counterparts in the loyalist terror gangs.

But there is a small crack in the edifice. If the maverick LVF publicly destroys its weapons - and they could still do so in spite of recent setbacks - this will leave their fellow terrorists without excuses. This crack could allow a flood.

So why don't the bigger terrorist bodies bite the bullet and start to decommission?

The most pathetic excuse is that there is no historical precedent. With that logic, we would still be stuck in some prehistoric swamp. Man would never have evolved from bacteria. We certainly would not have the Belfast Agreement.

In any case, Sinn Féin ignore the fact that there is no precedent in Irish history for power-sharing between unionists, nationalists and republicans. But that is what the Agreement advocates. Sinn Féin want state power. But it can only happen if the guns are silenced. Some say that there's no problem as the guns and violence are not being used. Tell that to the 1000 people who have suffered "punishment" beatings and shootings since 1994. Or the hundreds expelled by paramilitary thugs.

But even if the weapons weren't used, there remain deeper democratic reasons for decommissioning. A party with a private army undermines democracy. And the threat of violence poisons politics.

There can be no new beginning until this is ended, once and for all. Democrats, especially Unionists, will have little or no confidence in the Agreement and trust in Sinn Féin unless decommissioning is delivered.

But there are some signs of hope. It is reported by some - but dismissed by others - that the IRA Convention met last weekend. The IRA doesn't come together to swap recipes and knitting patterns. Any meeting is pretty difficult to organise. We can assume that they met for a purpose.

This larger Convention may have agreed to allow the smaller 20-strong IRA Executive to decide on decommissioning. And according to senior Government sources at Westminster, this is being interpreted as meaning that Adams and McGuinness could deliver on decommissioning.

Thousands of people have risked their lives, many have died or been jailed to build up the IRA into the world's most effective and feared fascist terror group. Hard-faced volunteers don't buy the argument that they can always buy more arms. It isn't that easy. And pity the IRA commander who orders his men to risk their lives to rob a bank to fund further arms purchases?

We know that the IRA has a doomsday dump of 100 tons of explosives and guns. We shouldn't be mesmerised like some scared rabbit by this figure. Destroying one rusty gun or one ounce of semtex is a massive political, even theological step for the IRA.

There is no such thing as token decommissioning. The Provos would have crossed the Rubicon. There would be no turning back.

Others might take up the fight. But any recurring IRA would operate in very different and much more difficult conditions. Not least if they can't access arsenals controlled by today's men of peace. But what already makes the situation radically different is that the people and parties of these islands have signed up to an agreement that knocks the stuffing out of violent politics. Bombs and death may happen again. But fewer people will be able to justify and sustain this in the court of public opinion.

The Provos either can't or won't decommission or want to keep the guns just in case. It's their problem, not ours.

But decommissioning will allow Sinn Féin to realise some of their treasured ambitions. Without guns and the threat of force, they will be able to make new political alliances and work the equality agenda.

They face the de Valera dilemma - between twisted principles and pragmatism. He took the leap. Ireland was transformed. Sinn Féin can do the same.

But the guns have to go if Sinn Féin wants the freedom to achieve the freedom it yearns for.


Gary Kent is the Westminster Correspondent of the Belfast based Fortnight Magazine. This article appeared in the November 29th edition of the Sunday World.