Comment: Trimble, Blair, Mowlam and Ahern should take a gamble on weapons

COLMCILE DOES not seem to like Nick Martin-Clark. I picture him now, bristly and squat, tapping out his furious, semi-literate messages in a state of desperation that this elegant rival might actually win converts. NMC himself, though the name belongs to a supercilious Brit from a Hollywood movie, is never anything but lucid and respectful. As well he might be, since he is a most unwelcome visitor to the republican bulletin board, the place where you go to chat after you've absorbed Gerry Adams's latest missive on the Sinn Fein website.

The issue over which Colmcile and NMC are falling out is the decommissioning of IRA weapons. NMC has gone to the bother of posting a comprehensive, analytical and non-partisan piece, arguing that the spirit of the peace process does now require some movement on the part of the IRA, even if - as he accepts - disarmament is not a pre-condition of moving ahead to the establishment of a new executive to run Northern Ireland. Colmcile, to the approbation of other contributors, replies thus: "I am surprised you [have] the time and still get over to Drumcree for peacekeeping there with the local Orange Order. You are scum and should keep to your own country. Colmcile."

You have to be careful with bulletin boards. Women turn out to be men and Sinn Feiners could really be bored sixth-formers trying to start a fight. But in trying to answer the baffling question, "Why, if they believe so strongly that the war is over, are the IRA so determined to hang on to every last revolver?", it is much more useful to visit an uncensored site like this, than to attempt to interpret the theological and often gnomic pronunciations of Gerry and pals.

We all know that, in the febrile dawn moments before the Good Friday agreement was signed last year, a form of words was found which suggested that the paramilitaries would disarm a bit, but without making their doing so a stumbling-block to the rest of the process. This was part of what enabled David Trimble to sign up, whereupon much of the rest of his party fled. "All participants," read the agreement, "accordingly reaffirm their commitment to the total disarmament of all paramilitary organisations. They also confirm their intention... to use any influence they may have, to achieve the decommissioning of all paramilitary arms within two years following endorsement in referendums, North and South, of the agreement and in the context of the implementation of the overall settlement."

It is hard to understand this in any other way than that Sinn Fein, for its part, agreed to try its level best to get the Provos to give up all their weapons by Easter 2000. Not some. All. This was not, however, a pre-condition of Sinn Fein's entry into the executive. Quite right, for they do indeed represent a substantial body of opinion in Northern Ireland, as tested in the 1998 assembly elections. But it was also obvious that a complete failure to achieve any movement whatsoever on decommissioning would put at risk Unionist support for the agreement.

Of course, we deal here partly with symbols. The Unionist insistence on disarmament is in danger of elevating the mere existence of weaponry above the willingness of human beings to use it. Were the conflict to begin again on the previous industrial scale, it might only be a matter of time before zealots got hold of replacement weapons. And we have heard a great deal of stuff about how Irish revolutionaries have always had a romantic need to bury their pikes and Semtex by lamplight.

Nevertheless, this whole agreement has been an exercise in confidence building - which is substantially a symbolic process. Prisoners who have been responsible for terrible acts have been let out, without first repenting; the IRA, for its part, has located the graves of some of those whom it "executed" in the early Seventies. To the anxious outsider it seems logical to say, "OK. You, Gerry Adams, get the IRA to give up some weapons and you, David Trimble, get the new executive up and motoring. And do it at roughly the same time." Indeed, this - in essence - was what the Hillsborough declaration said a fortnight ago.

Now Gerry says that he is not in a position to oblige. In his Easter speech he was clear: "We cannot deliver the demand for IRA weapons, no matter how this is presented." But how should we interpret this? Are we to believe that Sinn Fein is trying hard ("using any influence they may have"), but that it cannot quite get the balaclava-ed ones to play ball?

Initially, it doesn't sound like it. "One of the [British] provocations," Adams went on, "has been the demand on the IRA to disarm. This is something which the IRA has made clear it feels under no obligation to do." Technically, this is true. The IRA did not, as such, take part in the talks. Nevertheless, Sinn Fein is obliged to try and persuade the IRA, and pretty damn soon, too.

So, the question arises, under what circumstances would Gerry and Martin and Mitchell et al think that they do stand a chance of persuading the IRA to give up their weapons? When they take their places in an executive? Six months afterwards? When the loyalist paramilitaries give up theirs? Or never?

When David Trimble frightens us with his suggestions that he may no longer be able to command the support of his followers, this is at least something that we can test. We can go out there and ask them, or we can take a poll. What is impossible for us to evaluate is whether Adams risks a split within the IRA by demanding decommissioning. It's easy for him to suggest that he's a reasonable guy, but that his mate is a bit mental and that that's his chair we're sitting on.

What makes this stance even more awkward is the way that Sinn Fein rhetoric faces in two directions at once. "Let me try also to assure our Unionist neighbours," says Adams, "We will do our best to remove any difficulties you may have and to understand your fears and your feelings. We will do everything we can within our ability to make this process work." And then, in the same breath, he blames British "securocrats" (whatever they are) for stoking up the decommissioning demand. The man is intelligent. He knows better than that; that it is the Unionist people themselves who want to have those arms put "beyond use".

I believe that Trimble, Blair, Mowlam and Ahern should take the gamble, and allow the executive to be formed, making it clear that they are calling Sinn Fein's bluff. Let it in and then see whether it does use its best efforts to get rid of all IRA weapons. For at some point they must go. You don't have to be a securocrat, for God's sake, to be alarmed by armed men. "Take no notice of Nick Martin-Clark," one of Colmcile's mates posted on the republican bulletin board yesterday. "His days are numbered." Anywhere else that would have read more like swaggering prophecy than threat.

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