David McKittrick: So much on offer for nationalists and yet so little for the Unionists

'Totted up into columns of political gains and loss, this document is plainly not a balanced production'


As soon as the Good Friday Agreement rescue document was published yesterday, it was instantly apparent that it was not going to work. As it stands, there is no chance that it will persuade the Ulster Unionists to stay in government.

The big question is whether something else might be on the way to change all that. There is really only one form that this could take, which is a significant IRA move on weaponry. Nobody knows if the document might be enough to bring that about.

At this point it is impossible to know whether London and Dublin have produced this text in a last, despairing effort to produce IRA movement, or whether they have sound private reasons to believe that something big is now possible.

When the Ulster Unionist leader, David Trimble, went into the Weston Park talks some weeks ago he asserted that the only issue on the agenda was that of decommissioning. He stood down as First Minister at the end of last month because the IRA had not moved far enough on the issue, and it is inconceivable that he or any other Unionist would, or could, go back into that office without IRA movement.

This reality goes beyond political posturing, since decommissioning is the preoccupation at all levels of the Unionist party and throughout the Protestant grass roots. Most want devolution, but they want decommissioning more: the operative slogan remains "no guns, no government".

Yesterday's statement in contrast contained only two aspirational sentences on decommissioning, simply setting out that it is an indispensable part of the Good Friday Agreement. There was a complete absence of challenge to the IRA, no threat of penalties, no dramatic demands.

The fact that the tone was instead so studiously neutral may itself be an interesting pointer. Since Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness have said on numerous occasions that the IRA does not respond to ultimatums, London and Dublin are probably consciously attempting to give the organisation space to move.

This is, however, a bad time to expect decommissioning in any form, given the daily street violence in north Belfast and other areas. The fact that most of the attacks come from loyalists means that Catholic ghetto-dwellers are pressing the IRA not to abandon its guns.

As the document was being released yesterday the funeral was taking place of Gavin Berry, who was shot in a loyalist drive-by shooting. The north Belfast Protestant teenager died in the arms of his Catholic father in an incident which was a reminder of the depths of hatred that still fester out there.

Yet the prayer vigil held on Tuesday night at the scene of the murder told a different story, for many of the hundreds who took part found it a truly uplifting moment. As they walked home many of their faces were unusually radiant, as if they had participated in a very special occasion. That was a reminder that deep community tensions can co-exist with an even deeper cross-community yearning for peace.

This is reflected in the fact that a clear majority still believes the Good Friday Agreement provides a level playing-field for the conduct of politics. The signs are that many more Protestants would come round to supporting it, if only there were decommissioning.

But yesterday's document has only glancing references to the issue, concentrating instead on policing, demilitarisation and protecting the Agreement's institutions. In a more settled society these issues might be judged on their own merits, but in Belfast they are viewed primarily as victories or defeats for republicans or Unionists.

The republicans seem to have done well on policing, the two governments emphasising the recommendations of the Patten report on which Sinn Fein places so much store. Reading between the lines, the intention seems to be to reduce the use of plastic bullets by police, and eventually to phase them out altogether.

Some security watchtowers and an army base are earmarked for closure, with the hope expressed that all watchtowers and the great majority of army bases can eventually go. The 60 or so republicans on the run, who are officially wanted for offences going back for years, are to be allowed home.

An international judge is to look at controversial killings which have led to allegations of security force collusion in the deaths, with the possibility that public inquiries might result.

Most of these and other provisions spring from republican and nationalist agendas rather than Unionist concern. Unionists, both politicians and the grass roots, are either indifferent to such things or tend to be against them, regarding them as the other side's issues.

There are some things in the document which are evidently meant to please Unionism. The operation of the Parades Commission, which many Protestants resent because it bans many Orange marches, is to be reviewed and collusion claims against not just the RUC but also the southern police will be looked into.

These Unionist-friendly elements are, however, few and look suspiciously like makeweights. Totted up into columns of political gain and loss, the document is plainly not a balanced production, even leaving aside the decommissioning section. It has little for Unionists, a lot for nationalists.

Given the general cynical Unionist perception that republicans and nationalists had already been getting far too many concessions, the document is almost designed to reinforce that feeling. It is therefore a calculated risk. London and Dublin know that only decommissioning can stabilise Unionism and convince a majority that Mr Trimble should go back into government.

The IRA cannot be forced to decommission: it will only ever act when it is in its own interests to do so, and has made it clear it will only move when its requirements on policing and demilitarisation are met. The two governments went a long way yesterday to satisfying those requirements.

The peace process now has two looming deadlines. All parties have been asked to respond by Tuesday next, while 12 August marks the deadline in law when the government must suspend the assembly or call fresh elections to it. The IRA has not been formally asked to respond but everyone knows that, if it does not, the peace process will descend into deep, deep trouble.

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