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It's not over yet

(by Ed Moloney, Sunday Tribune)

So what happens next? Assuming, that is, that David Trimble gets re-elected next Friday as First Minister. It wouldn't take a genius to devise a couple of scenarios in which the breakthrough in the peace process represented by last week's decommissioning move by the Provisional IRA turns sour and the Good Friday institutions are once again threatened. But the question is will they happen?

Scenario One could look something like this. Angry at being deceived by their political leadership over the arms issue the IRA grassroots begin to grumble ominously. A nervous and anxious IRA and Sinn Féin leadership do what they have done in the past at such times of internal disquiet, they dissemble madly.

They tell the base that the decommissioning act was a cod and that the Unionists, de Chastelain and all the governments have been conned and that the IRA's arsenals are really intact. (Don't laugh - in some areas of Belfast this is already happening.) They also reassure their supporters that the option of going back to war has not really been abandoned, that the IRA is still around and fit to do the business and to prove this the Chief of Staff authorises a number of operations, a robbery or two here, a punishment shooting there, a movement or couple of weapons and possibly even the killing of a drug dealer - or even better still a dissident, something that would kill two birds with the one stone so to speak.

It wouldn't take long for the authorities and the Unionists, if not the media, to work out that the IRA was behind these acts of violence and immediately David Trimble would be on the defensive. The weakness in the decommissioning process, the fact that to disguise the scale of the IRA surrender the British and Irish governments authorised a secret process of disarming in which no-one, not even the governments themselves, get to know officially just how many guns or how much explosives have been put out of action becomes a critical flaw.

Trimble effectively has no answer to DUP and Loyalist jibes that he has been hoodwinked by the Provos and he declares February 2002 to be the deadline for the completion of all IRA decommissioning. Once again the Good Friday Agreement faces a crisis with the governments in a familiar quandry - should they turn a blind eye to the IRA's activities, as they did in the past, on the grounds that this is necessary to bolster Gerry Adams' authority and that in the long-term his survival as leader of the peace party is in their best interests. Or do they take a stand against Adams?

The other scenario is also familiar. Loyalist paramilitaries, especially the UDA, will realise that they have a perfect opportunity to cause the Good Friday settlement a great deal of trouble. They, more than most, know that the Provos' roots lie in the need to defend their own streets and the wider Catholic community that this is the real reason why decommissioning is such a sensitive issue with the Republican rank and file. It is not for nothing that the children and parents struggling to Holy Cross school last week were taunted with jokes about the IRA toting water pistols; it is not for nothing that the UDA has been fomenting this and other disputes in the area in the first place.

Strategically chosen acts of violence in places like north Belfast or other interface areas of Belfast would throw down the gauntlet to the Provos. No matter how much the political leadership of Sinn Féin would object it might be impossible to stop the IRA, locally or at a wider level, from retaliating. IRA violence would have a predictable knock-on effect, forcing Unionists to threaten to withdraw once again from the power-sharing Executive.

The pressure on the IRA not to respond to provocation is going to be enormous. It may be that the organisation will choose the route trodden by its old rivals in the Workers Party and just simply lie about its armed wing's activities. Or it may be that events at Stormont next week may save them from having to do so.

The IRA has decommissioned, the Ulster Unionist ministers are back in harness in the Executive but David Trimble, whose resignation as First Minister earlier this year precipitated last week's momentous results, is still not sure whether he will return to office and until and unless that happens the Good Friday Agreement is still in something of a crisis. This sets the scene for the third and for some the most likely scenario.

As things stand his fate hangs on the decision of the dissident Ulster Unionist Assembly Member from North Down, barrister Peter Weir whether to vote against David Trimble as First Minister or to abstain during next Friday's crucial election at the Assembly.

If he votes against Trimble then the Unionist vote will be tied 29 for and 29 against and in those circumstances, with no First Minister to head the Executive, Northern Secretary John Reid may have no option but to call a fresh Assembly election. Trimble cannot be rescued by either the Women's Coalition or the Alliance Party posing as Unionists for the day, as is permissible under the legislation because under standing orders thirty days notice must be given beforehand. Clearly that hasn't happened and cannot now happen.

An election would have certain predictable consequences. In the wake of IRA decommissioning, Sinn Féin would probably sweep the SDLP away and emerge as the largest Nationalist party. Gerry Adams would become SF's likely candidate as deputy First Minister. The mood of Unionism may be more difficult to gauge but it is eminently possible that anti-agreement Unionists would capitalise on the vagueness and lack of detail in the decommissioning process at the expense of David Trimble and his colleagues. The new Assembly may thus be inherently unstable.

The real division within Unionism, between those who have recognised the enormity of Sinn Féin's ideological u-turn and those who either cannot or will not see it may well assert itself to the detriment of the Good Friday Agreement but to the advantage of the old Provo argument that Unionism and the Northern Ireland state are irreformable.

Everything then rests on Peter Weir's shoulders. He may not be able to bring himself to vote for David Trimble, a man he is said to personally detest, but party figures are hoping that between this weekend's Unionist Executive meeting and next Friday's election for First Minister he will be persuaded to abstain. That would be enough to see David Trimble and the Good Friday Agreement home and dry - at least for now.

October 28, 2001
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