There is a window of opportunity to overcome the problems that are frustrating the implementation of the Agreement.
Although the clear May 22nd deadline in the Agreement for decommissioning has been undermined by the unilateral imposition of the January deadline by the UUP, the Agreement will inevitably enter a new context.
It is vital that we make the best use of this time available. For over a month, we have been pushing our Six Point Plan.
It provides a series of sequenced steps that allows trust and confidence to grow between the protagonists, eventually leading to both devolution and decommissioning – the desire of the overwhelming majority of people. Our Plan is essentially a road-map rather than a detailed blueprint.
I have been delighted by the warm reception to it. Tony Blair has written to thank me for the initiative, and Bertie Ahern has spoken about it enthusiastically on several occasions. The Secretary of State has stated in the House of Commons, and more recently at our Conference, that he regards it as a constructive set of proposals. In addition, there have been some significant discussions on it with the Clinton Administration, both here and in Washington.
Significantly, in our discussions with the other pro-Agreement parties, no one has so far rejected our the Plan.
The first two steps of the plan have been the focus of considerable discussion. As a first stage, all the pro-Agreement parties should collectively recommit themselves to the full implementation of the Agreement.
This would best be kick-started by the Two Prime Ministers, and then followed up by the Secretary of State, and the Irish Foreign Minister through roundtable meetings.
When the issues of the restoration of the political institutions, and achieving progress on decommissioning go head-to-head, then a stalemate emerges.
Therefore, Step Two of our plan suggests an alternative starting point for a new sequence. Both Loyalist and Republican paramilitaries should provide a form of words, of their choosing, which indicate the renunciation of violence.
This alternative starting point could provide the necessary confidence for and reassurances to the parties, the Governments and the wider community that violence is a thing of the past.
It is also important that these statements are sufficiently broad to encompass not only so-called ‘military activities’, but also ‘non-military activities’ including so-called ‘punishment attacks’. These major human rights abuses sadly remain a major scourge upon our society.
If such statements from the paramilitaries facilitate more positive security assessments, Step Three of our Plan could see the British Government increase the pace of ‘normalisation’.
In turn, this should create the context for the re-engagement of both Loyalists and Republicans with the de Chastelain Commission involving agreement on timetables and modalities – Step Four.
This should provide sufficient confidence for Step Five of our Plan, in which the parties to agree to the restoration of the political institutions.
Finally, Step Six would see the Executive meeting, and actual decommissioning commencing on a common date – a Day of Reconciliation.
Republicans could see the institutions restored before decommissioning must take place, while Unionists could see substantial progress towards decommissioning before they are asked to consent to the restoration of the institutions, and will only have a small delay between returning to government and the start to decommissioning.
Yet, all this will only be possible if parties are willing to move from the absolutist positions that they have carved out for themselves.
However, since the inevitable suspension of the institutions in February, the ‘no men’ in the UUP have tried to tie David Trimble’s hands by insisting that changes to the Patten Report become a precondition to participation in an Executive. This only serves to turn the RUC into a political football. It also raises the unsustainable scenario in which Republicans have completely decommissioned, but Unionists still refuse to participate.
Sinn Fein have shown no signs of flexibility over the past two months. As they have done well out of the peace process, they should be keen to preserve those gains. But, at present, they seem to be saying that until everyone agrees with their analysis, they won’t budge.
Loyalists too are failing the process. They are often quick to pass comment upon the actions of others, but show no leadership on decommissioning themselves.
There is a clear central lesson that must be taken from the deadlock in the implementation of the Agreement. Unionism and Nationalism have got Northern Ireland into this mess because each has been allowed to pander to their respective extremes. Too much of the political focus has fallen on those raising obstacles and preconditions to progress, rather than those who are committed to the full implementation of the Agreement.
By contrast, the more that the centre ground and civic society within Northern Ireland makes its voice heard, then alternative sources of power and influence can be created.
In resolving these and other problems within our society, the centre ground, and in particular the Alliance Party, has an important role to play. With our Six Point Plan, we are showing that leadership.