Maurice Hayes: Four short sentences that say it all

The IRA's statement is not yet historic, but good enough to be going on with
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Edward Heath, who made his own contribution to the peace process in the Sunningdale Agreement, was said to have greeted the news of Mrs Thatcher's downfall with the words "Rejoice, Rejoice". When challenged, he corrected the record, with characteristic acerbity and bluntness, to "Rejoice, Rejoice, and Rejoice".

Three hallelujahs may be too much for the IRA statement, and would certainly be premature before the other parties have had time to react, but it is nevertheless of considerable significance: perhaps not yet historic, but good enough to be going on with. It is by any standards a huge contribution to the achievement of peace for the main protagonist to announce an end to its involvement in armed struggle.

The essential message is contained up-front in four short sentences, which are mercifully shorn of conditional clauses and free from republican jargon. The war is over. IRA units are ordered to dump arms. Volunteers are instructed to go political, adopting exclusively peaceful means, and must not engage in any other activities whatsoever. There is a commitment, too, to engagement with General de Chastelain's Independent International Commission on Decommissioning and to complete decommissioning as quickly as possible.

If the words "all", "exclusively" or "whatsoever" are to bear their ordinary meanings, this is to be welcomed as fairly forthright stuff. They must, on the face of it, be taken to include targeting, intelligence gathering, punishment beatings and criminal activity. Still, having been there before, the other parties will wait to see words on the page translated into action on the ground, and this may take some time.

The governments appear to accept that the statement meets their demand for the IRA to go out of business. Others will complain that they have not gone completely away. Since it was never to be expected that they would simply vaporise themselves, a segueing into a political club or an old comrades' association may be progress enough.

It cannot have been easy (and this is reflected in the statement) to order a complete closedown just when loyalist paramilitary activity is increasing in Belfast, and, more widely, there are nightly sectarian attacks on Catholic homes and chapels.

The commitment to engage with the IICD does not offer the full-frontal exposure that some demand, but it has been extended to include a Protestant and a Catholic clergyman. There will be no videos for those who demand full transparency, and no sackcloth for those requiring penitence, yet, if the guns are got out of the way quickly, many will ask if all that really matters. The Good Friday Agreement provides for validation by the IIDC, and General de Chastelain has displayed a rugged integrity and a soldierly disregard for semantics, and it should be left to him to certify that the guns and the bombs have been removed from the equation.

It is in no way to minimise the importance or the impact of the statement in signalling an end to violence to question whether it is enough to unfreeze the political stalemate. The short answer is probably not, and certainly not on its own.

The governments, in a show of solidarity, have welcomed the statement both for its content and as having the potential to ensure political progress. They, like the other parties, will be looking for specific performance, for evidence on the ground that the fine words of the statement are producing the desired effects.

Unionist parties, without whom there cannot be power-sharing, will be more chary, and will take longer to be convinced. Ulster Unionists may be more hawkish initially, partly to deny the DUP a triumph, and partly to assert their own virility. Among DUP, those who most nearly committed to an arrangement with Sinn Fein in November may be the most cautious this time round, and there will be those, too, who wish to have no truck with republicans. In the end, however, neither DUP nor Sinn Fein can govern without the other, and both know that.

The governments have made a point of stressing the dependence they will place on the report in January of the International Monitoring Commission (hitherto rubbished by Sinn Fein). If, however, the IRA guns do go and republicans play the political game by the accepted rules, the pressure, which has been on them, will transfer to the unionists, which will create internal problems, particularly for DUP. Sinn Fein could also transform the situation by engaging seriously in policing. There is no better evidence of commitment to a society than a willingness to police it, and a party aspiring to participation in government should be willing to help provide it.

All of which suggests that it could be well into next year, at best, before one could predict the full restoration of the devolved institutions.

The writer is a member of the Irish Senate and served on the Patten Commission on Policing in Northern Ireland