Article: Commitment to democracy needed to move forward

Commitment to democracy needed to move forward

By David Ford MLA

The two Governments billed the talks in Hillsborough last month as focused around one key issue – the verification of decommissioning.

While this may have been the issue over which the Governments’ package ran into the sand, there were major weaknesses and shortcomings in both the Governments’ text and the IRA’s own version of the proposed statement concerning the supposed end to paramilitarism.

Quite simply, they do not indicate that the IRA definitively accepts paragraph 13 of the Joint Declaration regarding an end to all paramilitary activity – nor does it renounce involvement in criminal activities.

In this respect, it comes a little surprise that Republicans had the nerve to engage in the robbery of the Northern Bank. They had not been properly pinned down on an end to all paramilitary and criminal activity.

The IRA’s proposed statement in the ‘comprehensive agreement’ – which was neither comprehensive nor agreed – is a more definite declaration than before of an end to ‘the war’. It indicates that a conditional ceasefire is now effectively permanent. The new, revised position of the IRA indicates the removal of the threat to the British state.

But the language used allows Republicans to continue to draw an arbitrary distinction between those activities that they deem to part of their armed struggle against the British state and Unionists, and those associated with them exercising control over communities.

The IRA statement allows it to continue to define what activities threaten the Agreement and which do not. Historically, Republicans have regarded activities such as paramilitary beatings, exiling, involvement in street disorder, and links to organised crime as falling outside of ‘the war’. Therefore, it is not clear that any of these other activities will come to an end.

We are told that the words ‘the need to uphold and not to endanger anyone’s personal rights and safety’ deals with the above problems. However, their absence from the proposed text released by the IRA raises major concerns about their genuine commitment to end all paramilitary and criminal activity. Even with the inclusion of this phrase, there is still considerable ambiguity. This commitment is linked to ‘any activity that might thereby endanger the new agreement.’ These activities are not defined, and Republicans implicitly reserve the right to do any defining.

These practices have the potential to destabilise the political institutions, and to undermine democracy, human rights and the rule of law just as much as, if not more than, decommissioning. They constitute some of the biggest human rights abuses in our society.

It is no longer tenable for any party to be playing a significant role in government while associated with ongoing paramilitary or criminal activity. Those who are placed in power to make and uphold the law cannot at the same time be associated with others engaged in law breaking.

We need an unambiguous commitment from all parties to a single, unified concept of the rule of law. If policing and criminal justice powers are to be returned to the Assembly in the future, it is crucial that this underlying requirement is adhered to.

The absence of a satisfactory IRA statement illustrates the problems of the Governments basing the negotiations around two parties – the concerns of the wider community are often neglected.

What is required from the IRA, and indeed all paramilitary groups, is not that they use trite soundbites such as ‘the war is over’, but rather make a clear and unambiguous statement renouncing all paramilitary and criminal activity, without qualification.

David Ford is the Leader of the Alliance Party

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