(by Ed Moloney, Sunday Tribune)
October 21, 2001
When the Good Friday Agreement was being negotiated in the Spring of 1998 everyone involved knew that IRA decommissioning would be the issue that could bring the whole enterprise tumbling to the ground. It very nearly did.
Unionists demanded an immediate start to disarming and threatened to make Sinn Féin's agreement to this a precondition for that party's participation in government and the enactment of other aspects of the deal including prisoner releases.
Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness and the Sinn Féin negotiators had enormous problems over the issue. The logic of the peace process, the logic of Sinn Féin accepting the principle of Unionist consent and accepting the existence and legitimacy of the Northern Ireland state was that armed struggle would be abandoned and the need for weapons made redundant. In that sense allowing the weapons to fall into rusty disuse was the natural outworking of the strategy the Adams leadership had adopted many years before.
But jumping from that to actual decommissioning at that stage was something that was a leap too far for the Adams' leadership. Not only was the idea of weapons surrender still unacceptable to Republican psyche but there were practical difficulties as well.
The IRA and Sinn Féin rank and file had been brought along the peace process route by continuous assurances from the political and military leadership that the ceasefire was a tactical ploy which if it failed to advance the Provisional goal of Irish unity would be abandoned. If that happened, they were told by their leaders, the IRA would return to war.
It followed that if either the IRA Army Council or the Sinn Féin leadership agreed to get rid of the weapons then this would make those assurances meaningless and suggest that the political leadership, at the least, had been misleading the rank and file and that the military leadership, at the least, had also been hoodwinked.
This was a large enough obstacle for Adams et al to overcome but there was an even greater difficulty facing the pro-peace process camp. By the time decommissioning reached the negotiating table in April 1998 the IRA was only just recovering from the most damaging split in its ranks since the Provisionals were founded in 1969. With their opponents accusing them of treachery the pressure on the surviving leadership to appear uncompromising was intense, otherwise the dissidents might be proved right.
Virtually the entire Quarter-Master's and Engineering departments, and along with them a substantial section of the IRA's Southern Command had defected to form a rival body, the Real IRA, after suffering a defeat at an IRA Convention over the direction of the peace process. The dissidents had been outmanoeuvred by Adams and McGuinness at the Convention but although forced to retreat from the field of battle they left behind a booby trap which would take the anti-dissident faction nearly two years to defuse.
A constitutional change had been forced through a previous IRA Convention which had taken away the Army Council's right to dispose of the IRA weapons. In future any move like that would require the approval of a special or extraordinary Convention which, given the traditionally militarist outlook of the IRA rank and file, would be very difficult for Adams to win.
The constitutional change meant that even if the Sinn Féin camp at the Good Friday Agreement negotiations wanted to decommission they simply didn't have the legal authority to do so nor the political space. It is not clear whether David Trimble was aware of this difficulty but it seems unlikely. The Irish government certainly did know and it is probable that so did the British.
The Provisionals just could not make a public concession on arms at this stage. But there was nothing to prevent them making a private commitment. So it was that the Sinn Féin team entered into a secret agreement with the two governments that decommissioning would indeed happen but that it would not and could not be on a peremptory basis.
It was this pledge which laid the foundation for a process of "voluntary" decommissioning in which the IRA would deal with a separate international body and not the British government or the Unionists and that strenuous efforts would be made to avoid any overtones of surrender in any of their dealings. It is for this reason, for example, that if decommissioning does now happen there will be no photographic record of the deed. The agreement also laid the basis for Sinn Féin entering the power-sharing government before decommissioning had actually begun. Doing decommissioning on a "voluntary" and non-peremptory basis meant that the party had to persuade the army of the merits of the move and only Sinn Féin figures holding ministerial office for long enough could do that.
According to one well-informed source the message was relayed to the governments by an Army Council member who was on the Sinn Féin delegation at Stormont Buildings - not Gerry Adams nor Martin McGuinness but another figure based in Co Donegal.
The other difficulty was the time frame. While the Unionists wanted immediate decommissioning the Provisionals argued that they would need at least five years to win over their grassroots to the merits of the new strategy. The SDLP and Dublin suggested three and a compromise was reached with two years.
Publicly the decommissioning issue was unresolved after Good Friday 1998. Jeffrey Donaldson indeed quit the Ulster Unionist negotiating team in disgust at the way the matter had been left hanging in the air while other Unionists complained and grumbled. Sinn Féin's spin doctors continued to tell the media that the IRA would never disarm. It seemed as if the ingredients were all there for an eventual collapse. But the reality was that the process had been set in motion.
The next stage was the victory for the Adams camp at the special IRA Convention held in May 1998 at which the bar on taking seats in the Northern parliament was dropped. Next came another victory, by a spectacular majority, at a special Sinn Féin ard-fheis which, after one false start, voted to endorse and accept the agreement and also to take seats in a Stormont assembly. The scale of the two victories enormously strengthened the hand of the Adams camp.
Within a month the "voluntary" decommissioning formula was made public. The IRA commander in the Maze prison, Padraig Wilson gave an interview to the Financial Times' Ireland correspondent Jimmy Burns in mid-June 1998 and said: "I think a 'voluntary' decommissioning would be a natural development of the peace process once we get a sense that the arrangements envisaged in the agreement are beginning to function." The assumption was that the interview had been cleared by the SF leadership and that his remarks would come as no surprise to figures like Gerry Adams.
A year later the peace camp in the Provisionals got rid of the dissident constitutional change and the Army Council was given back the power to dispose of the IRA's weapons as it saw fit. There was no longer any need to hold a Convention to approve the move; that could be safely left to afterwards. With the Sinn Féin leadership now firmly in charge of both sections of the Provisional movement the scene was set for actual decommissioning to take place.