28th November 1999
Editorial/Opinion| Business| Sports|
Sports Plus| Mirror Magazine
Temper your optimismIn a recent BBC Television programme Dateline London, I was asked how I felt about the peace process in Northern Ireland. After some intense negotiations by mediator George Mitchell, a former US senator, the Protestant Ulster Unionists and the Catholic Republicans had narrowed their positions.
Naturally there was widespread optimism here that the 30-year-old conflict which had torn the two communities apart, might be coming to an end.
At least two of the other participants in the programme Adam Raphael of The Economist and Warren Hoge of the New York Times, a former foreign editor of mine when I used to write for that paper from Colombo, were rather optimistic about the progress that had been made in the past couple of weeks.
Hoge had returned from Northern Ireland only a day or two earlier. He said there was a genuine desire for peace in Ulster, people were simply tired of the war and they wanted to go on with their lives without being burdened with the fear of what would happen if the talks failed.
Since I went on the programme as a correspondent for The Sunday Times in Sri Lanka instead of wearing any of my other hats, naturally our own dirty war was very much in the mind of the programme presenter Gavin Eslee.
So, against the background of our own conflict how did I see the recent developments in Northern Ireland.
It is indeed true that there had been progress and the two sides- the Ulster Unionists and the Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) had indeed been able to narrow differences considerably. Just as the mediator George Mitchell was preparing to leave for home, the Unionists and Republicans issued statements which, for once, read as though they had been drafted by the same people or at least with each other's help.
What came through was their stated commitment to peace and democracy. They appeared as responsible political parties, determined to end a debilitating conflict and bring about peace.
But one thing was lacking. To me this was the crucial factor. There was no statement from the IRA that it would surrender or, to use the official euphemism, decommission its weapons. The question of decommissioning is a central issue and had been the stumbling block in previous negotiations.
In fact until recently the Ulster Unionists adopted the principle of no arms, no devolution, and only now that it is trying to make a significant shift to reach accommodation, an approach that has put on the line the political future of the Unionist leader David Trimble.
The silence of the IRA on decommissioning of weapons was compounded a few days prior to the programme by remarks made in the United States by two Sinn Fein negotiators, Martin Ferris and Pat Doherty who put a damper on the handing over of weapons to coincide with the devolution of power to a new assembly in Northern Ireland which will include representatives from all sides under the Good Friday Agreement reached last year.
Moreover, Martin Ferris is believed to be one of a seven-member group known as the IRA Army Council. He was quoted as saying in the US that the "conflict is not over, nor is the struggle". Later the Sinn Fein hurriedly tried to control the damage saying that one had been misquoted and the other misunderstood.
True or not, the result is the strengthening unionist suspicions that the IRA would not hand over its weapons or make just a token surrender.
If the Sri Lanka experience is a lesson, then decommissioning is vital to erase the suspicions of those who believe that weapons in the hands of any group is dangerous and a recipe for future conflict. I'm not thinking here only of the LTTE but also other groups, whoever they may be, who have been parties to a conflict or might be in the future.
We know only too well what happened when members of parliament and their henchmen were provided with weapons in the days of the UNP government. We know equally well what has happened when kith and kin of politicians acquired weapons for themselves in the guise of security needs.
Those who had to be safeguarded were not these self important brats of politicians but those who ran foul of them either by standing up for justice and fairplay or by not doing their every bidding.
The one and only time when the decommissioning of LTTE weapons was attempted was under the Indo- Sri Lanka Accord. Despite that much-publicised exercise and the bloated inventories, it was a dismal failure. Only some old weapons were handed over while the important, modern arms were buried or hidden in safe houses days before the due date.
If I was far less optimistic than Adam Raphael and Warren Hoge last Sunday, it is because experience shows that the good intentions of political parties, however laudable they might be do not determine the results of negotiations. Parties could well determine the course and direction of discussions. But it is those who have the weapons that generally decide the success or failure of such negotiations.
Alternatively armed groups must be defeated militarily thereby eliminating or marginalising them as integral participants. Or such groups must have a dramatic change of heart where they will surrender their weapons and accept the outcome of political negotiations.
As long as an insurrectionist group has not been militarily defeated and retains the ability to unleash havoc and mayhem, it will remain a force that cannot be ignored, especially since acts of terrorism require only a few dedicated to their cause whatever that might be.
Although I couldn't say all this, the message was clear enough. I could not have had better support for my position than the warning of a national terrorist threat issued by Scotland Yard one day later. It warned of a possible Christmas bombing campaign by dissident Republicans.
The Yard said that dissidents determined to wreck the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement might use this period to do their dirty work. Scotland Yard and MI5 believe that the level of threat from breakaway groups opposed to the peace process is now at its highest for some time.
There is nothing basically wrong in being optimistic. But it would be wise to temper such optimism with reality and the lesson of empirical evidence.
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