Clarity and Certainty


A few weeks ago I tried to explain to an Irish government official the anger and frustration felt by nationalists at the ease and alacrity with which Bertie Ahern at the Hillsborough summit on March 3rd endorsed David Trimble’s demands for new powers to initiate sanctions against Sinn Fein for any alleged breach by the IRA of its ceasefire.

To give you an idea of unionist pettiness, one of the more ridiculous proposals contained in the minutiae of their demands is that the IRA would be in breach of its ceasefire (with Sinn Fein being penalised) if there were any rioting in nationalist areas - because, as we all know, the IRA is behind everything!

There were already sanction powers under the Belfast Agreement, an Agreement to which the Ulster Unionist party reluctantly signed up as the price for having a devolved assembly. But Trimble has wanted that criteria changed so that unionist numbers alone could trigger sanctions rather than the existing cross-party balance and check rule requiring a majority of both nationalist and unionist designated representatives. Nationalists, with good reason, believe that for unionists the issue of sanctions is not about the morality of violence or ethics but is about putting Sinn Fein out of government the day after an excuse is found.

No one believes that if the UVF, let’s say, were to go back to Loughinisland or Greysteel and kill a dozen Catholics, its political representatives in the Assembly, those in the PUP, would be barred from sitting on various committees. David Trimble was found by a court judgment to be in breach of his ministerial oath by refusing to authorise fellow ministers, Martin McGuinness and Bairbre de Brun, carrying out their duties and attending meetings of North/South bodies. He wasn’t even barred from the Assembly canteen for a lunch hour.

The Irish government official I spoke to, listened to me and tried to reassure me that it would all be right on the night: there was nothing to be alarmed at, there would be independent arbiters, safeguards, etc. But that wasn’t the point.

If you create an unnecessary power it will be unnecessarily used and abused. Furthermore, each and every concession to unionists has only fed their intransigence, encouraged them to make further demands along the road of emasculating the representative power of Sinn Fein, now the largest nationalist party.

Unionist representatives paint the cause of unionism as noble, innocent and merely reactive and defensive, and have never come around to realising – or admitting – their and their predecessors’ share of responsibility for the conflict. Unionist abuses of power – real, remembered abuses – fostered and created the momentum for a significant proportion of the violence that took place over the last thirty-four years.

When you look for an explanation for continued nationalist alienation from the state look at their treatment and experience under unionism and British direct rule. When you wonder about the IRA’s deep sense of distrust look at the machinations of British securocrats during the ceasefire and the unremitting attempts by unionists to undermine peace, their double-standards when it comes to unionist violence.

If you want to know why Sinn Fein sustains attack and false blame for the current difficulties in the peace process it is because Sinn Fein in holding out, for example, for thorough police reform, leading to an acceptable police service, is trying to undo the mess that Tony Blair made of the Patten Commission’s proposals when he kow-towed to unionist objections.

On the fifth anniversary of the signing of the Belfast Agreement, last Thursday, the British government withheld publishing its implementation plan and Blair and Ahern had to cancel their meeting with the parties at Hillsborough. They had not done their homework. They said they were looking for clarity and certainty. Dublin had not listened to republicans when with clarity they said that handing unionists new sanctions was with certainty unacceptable. And Blair, obsessed with bombing Iraq into freedom, thought that he could bounce the IRA into a corner on its required ‘acts of completion’ and get away with presenting to Sinn Fein, in particular, a fait accompli on his proposals to implement those major aspects of the Agreement on which the British had defaulted.

The IRA had a statement containing its response to the proposed plan which the two governments, but London in particular, found unacceptable and so the summit was cancelled and the message went out that the IRA was solely to blame.

Was the IRA in its statement threatening to bomb London? Threatening to break its ceasefire? To rearm? To recruit? To open training camps?

We don’t know how the statement actually read but we know the IRA threatened nothing of the sort and no one but, in its own words - not Trimble’s words, not Blair’s words, but in its own words – pledged its continued support for the peace process and the agreed outcome of negotiations.

Republicans honourably entered into the peace process only to find many unionists and British securocrats attempting to turn it into a surrender process.

Some, though not all, of those unionists have since perhaps realised their folly and that they are jeopardising the Assembly they genuinely want to see work. But they have still left a legacy of distrust so that it has become almost impossible to believe them when they claim that they are not out to humiliate republicans but just need ‘certain things’ from the IRA as assurances. They initially accepted John de Chastelain’s international decommissioning body, with which the IRA has twice engaged, only to up the ante and now demand the filming of the destruction of IRA weapons. The sticking point is that they have made those ‘certain things’ synonymous with surrender.

For the IRA to revise its statement would appear to depend on whether the British with clarity and with certainty spell out when they are finally prepared to implement the outstanding aspects of the Belfast Agreement, including realistic provisions for the new start to policing, they promised.

Prediction: no matter what happens – and I mean no matter what - David Trimble will not be happy!

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© 2007 Irish Author and Journalist - Danny Morrison