A cure for Northern Ireland's paralysis

Disputes over handing in weapons must not be allowed to halt peace talks, argues Dick Spring
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The Independent Online
It is intolerable that the threat of terrorism should hang over people in any part of these islands. Our security forces maintain the closest co-operation to prevent such violence, to bring those responsible to justice, and to track down illegal weapons. Those who seek to use violence for political ends must meet the most offensive security response we can muster.

Beyond that, we must also come to grips politically with the situation that has produced and sustained a culture which motivates people to kill and be killed, because of problems that the overwhelming majority of people believe can only be resolved politically.

The prospects for success of the negotiations on 10 June will be immeasurably enhanced if they take place in a climate of peace and are therefore inclusive. The two governments have signalled their desire that Sinn Fein should take its place at the negotiating table, on the one critical condition that the IRA ceasefire is unequivocally restored. The governments will expect all participants, at the beginning of the negotiations, to make clear their total and absolute commitment to the stern test of the principles of democracy and non-violence set out in the reports of the International Body, chaired by Senator George Mitchell.

In order to build confidence in the negotiations, the two governments have further agreed that the International Body's proposals on decommissioning must be addressed at the beginning of the discussions.

The Irish Government has the strongest possible motivation to see illegal arms on all sides decommissioned as soon as possible and removed forever from the political equation. But, as the Mitchell report confirmed, it is unrealistic to expect this goal to be achieved simply by making it a precondition for entry into the negotiations

How the decommissioning issue will be handled is now a key issue in the ongoing debate about whether the ceasefire can be restored. An absolutist position on decommissioning as a precondition for talks is simply self- defeating. Without a restoration of the ceasefire, the decommissioning issue inevitably becomes academic, since those whose co-operation is needed to advance it will not be at the table. It has long been clear to everyone that non-inclusive talks against a background of violence were always going to be much less promising for achieving peace than inclusive negotiations against a background of peace.

Expertise in the deadly use of ordinary materials, and an accessible black market in weaponry, mean that decommissioning is not a decisive factor in preventing future violence. That requires, as the Mitchell report reminded us, that we must decommission mindsets as well. That is why the goal of meaningful and inclusive political negotiations is so crucial. A political dynamic is the enabling condition for progress on all fronts, including decommissioning.

The baleful capacity of the decommissioning issue to paralyse the wider political debate has been amply demonstrated. Clarity about a sensible way to handle it, and one that meets valid concerns on both sides, is the single most important contribution that the governments can make to building confidence and restoring optimism to the peace process generally.

Our treatment of this issue is manifestly central to the success or failure of the process as a whole. For that reason I proposed that we should as of now seek agreement on all sides that the negotiations should remit this issue in the first instance, under independent outside aegis, to a separate but parallel stream of negotiations. This would not in any way remove it from the overall agenda of the negotiators. They would receive reports on it periodically and its outcomes would be submitted to them in good time for full consideration alongside the results emerging from political negotiations across the three strands. The final judgement would be theirs, but taken on an informed basis, and after the necessary preliminary and technical issues had been sorted out.

My proposal would ensure that the question of decommissioning and the proposals of the Mitchell report would be fully addressed from the outset of substantive negotiations in tandem with political discussions across the three strands. In my view, progress towards an inclusive settlement and decommissioning are likely to be achieved in parallel or not at all.

The Irish government, for its part, will be prepared to process urgently whatever legislation is needed to facilitate any arrangements that might be necessary for the physical decommissioning of weapons.

In my view, the creation of a separate fourth stream to the all-party negotiations, which would enable work on decommissioning to proceed in parallel with negotiations on a lasting political settlement, is the most likely strategy by which fear of the bomb can be forever removed from the life of all our peoples.

We must not allow a theoretical notion of the best to become an enemy of an achievable version of the good. An approach such as I have suggested is the most practical way to realise the goal both governments seek.

The writer is Deputy Prime Minister of the Irish Republic.

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