followed by others
YESTERDAY'S GESTURE by the Loyalist Volunteer Force is a good answer to all those doom-mongers and pessimists who have gathered around the Northern Ireland peace process. Voices have been raised - ever since John Hume, John Major and others began the process - to say that it could not work, would not work, and should not be attempted. Such voices will probably be heard to deride yesterday's events. But the first decommissioning in Northern Ireland's recent sectarian tragedy is a milestone that should not be underestimated.
The LVF is not an organisation on the scale of the Ulster Defence Association and its offshoots, nor does it have the same capacity to maim and kill as the IRA. But it does constitute a real and potent threat to law and order in the province, responsible for punishment beatings and shootings of Catholics. It has handed in only a small quantity of guns and explosive detonators; but its gesture is a powerful one none the less. It shows what can be done. No one committed to an unending war, or despairing of peace, would do such a thing.
It is also a welcome affirmation of what can be gained from negotiation. The handing-in of the guns follows agreement on the shape of Northern Ireland's government, for so many weeks a frustratingly close compromise. It is this part of the Good Friday agreement which locks Northern Ireland's parties to each other.
None of Northern Ireland's parties can gain what they want without the others. Nationalists cannot gain cross-border bodies, linking their fate with that of the Republic, without the agreement of an assembly and executive on which non-nationalists hold a majority. Unionists cannot gain a new Stormont Assembly without agreeing to share power, and to set up such cross-border bodies. The agreement makes it clear that without fulfilment of all its clauses, the others fall too. It was this that the politicians recognised yesterday.
Most of those politicians have at least a line of communication open to armed groups. Their leadership is crucial if more arms are to be decommissioned, and yesterday they showed that leadership. Mo Mowlam, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and the party leaders who have agreed on those Cabinet seats and cross-border bodies, are to be congratulated.
But, welcome as the LVF's action is, one terrorist decommissioning does not mark the end of a 30-year conflict. Many obstacles still lie ahead. Most formidably, the IRA will have to make a gesture on at least the scale of the LVF's if it is to be admitted to the government of Northern Ireland.
David Trimble, First Minister of the shadow executive, has made it quite clear that if this does not take place, there can be no further progress. He cannot go back on the cast-iron assurances he has given to the Unionist members of the Assembly, and to his own party members. To do so would mean political extinction at the hands of Orange extremists all too ready and willing to wreck negotiations that they have never wanted.
Sinn Fein's role will be pivotal. It has made many compromises to get this far, and has played a positive role again in the last few days. But the party maintains that it can only "influence" the IRA, and will use whatever influence it has to secure decommissioning only once the Assembly and executive are working. It can maintain the fiction of an arms-length relationship with the IRA, if it smoothes its task. But it cannot escape its responsibilities.
It is true that even though the Good Friday agreement envisages decommissioning within two years, nowhere does it make explicit that this should take place before the Assembly and executive are constituted. But it should make no difference, if the will is there, when weapons are handed in. Indeed, a limited hand-over would be in Sinn Fein's best interests. They could take their seats in the executive; they would gain immeasurable goodwill in Dublin, Washington and London; they could start to shape the future of their province.
The IRA do not even need to start large-scale destruction or abandonment of weapons to gain this advantage for their political friends. All they need to do is to show that they understand the fears of their Unionist fellow citizens, and their British and Irish neighbours. All they need to do is to hand in one package of arms from their vast cache, to show that they mean it. When they see the beneficial results of that, we can hope that such actions will become a habit.
No one wants to see republicanism humiliated in "surrender". But what we have a right to expect is that all paramilitaries, including the Provisional IRA, emulate the gesture their opponents have made, and soon.