David McKittrick: An unclear picture after IRA gets camera-shy

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The Independent Online

In the end, the sticking point came down to camerawork, whether the IRA would agree to a photographer capturing the demise of its weapons.

In the end, the sticking point came down to camerawork, whether the IRA would agree to a photographer capturing the demise of its weapons.

The terrorist organisation was shaping up for a historic moment, with all its weaponry being put out of commission by the end of this month, in addition to assurances that paramilitary activity would end.

The Canadian general, John de Chastelain, who has already seen three acts of decommissioning, would witness and describe the act. In a new departure, a Catholic priest and a Protestant minister would also be there.

The republican stance was that complete decommissioning, speedily carried out, is a concession of momentous proportions. They argued that the general and the churchmen would provide adequate verification of the event.

The Rev Ian Paisley's view was that visual evidence was needed in the form not just of one photograph but many - "It's not one photograph," he declared yesterday. "It's a total complete survey of all that they do."

In pushing for that, the DUP leader was seeking to flameproof himself against criticism from other Unionists who wanted not just witnesses but visual images as well. Victory on that point would have been both a defence and a triumph for him. For a long time, the IRA adamantly opposed all decommissioning but in recent years it has carried out such acts three times. It did so under controlled circumstances, with the general as the only witness.

It was done with the utmost reluctance and in the utmost secrecy, the general each time being spirited away to secret locations. Republicans explained the IRA would not countenance any act which might carry any connotation of humiliation or surrender.

It was largely successful, in that few accused it of capitulation and no significant splits occurred in the movement. At the same time, however, the lack of pictorial evidence meant the three acts had only limited political impact within Unionism.

This time round, the differences were that Ian Paisley had succeeded David Trimble as the principal negotiator for Unionism, that complete decommissioning was on offer, and extra witnesses would be there.

But the insistence on photographs was, republicans asserted, a concession too far. It was all too easy for them to imagine a picture of fractured IRA guns adorning the DUP election manifesto, or even the party's Christmas card.

It is not known whether the IRA would ever have agreed to photography but attitudes palpably hardened when Mr Paisley publicly demanded the IRA should "wear sackcloth and ashes" and show repentance for its violent actions.

Describing that as offensive language, Gerry Adams commented: "He wanted to see the IRA put through a process of humiliation and he repeated that on a number of occasions."

Since Mr Paisley has always been regarded as anti-republican, anti-nationalist and anti-Catholic, many republicans took his remarks as confirmation that his aim was victory rather than accommodation.

A compromise suggested by London and Dublin, under which photographs would have been taken but withheld for some months to allow new arrangements to bed in, proved unacceptable to both sides.

The weeks of negotiation therefore ended, in a familiar pattern, with progress but no final breakthrough. In the months ahead, new efforts will be made but at the moment the positions of the two sides are incompatible.

One interpretation is this is a technical issue but others regard it as deeply rooted in the near-complete absence of trust and confidence that has marked the entire peace process. The hope is none of the progress unravels when the two sides return to crack the single point holding up a real breakthrough.