t is ironic that the pro-Agreement parties have spent longer arguing over implementation than they did negotiating the actual Agreement. None of the issues at stake are particularly intractable. All the parties seem to agree on the goals of decommissioning, police reform, security normalisation and the stability of the institutions – but the question is how.
At Weston Park, Alliance presented a number of proposals for a way through the current impasse. These ideas build on the Six Point Plan Alliance issued at the end of February 2000, which was useful in helping to create a breakthrough at Hillsborough that May. We are hopeful that some of our current suggestions will be taken up in the forthcoming package from the two Governments.
For better or worse, decommissioning has been built up as the main test of the bona fides of paramilitary groups towards exclusively non-violent and democratic means. Rather than being cleared, this blockage has been pushed further and further down the pipe. Both domestic and international public opinion is clear that Republicans and Loyalists have been in default of commitments made.
In the past, paramilitaries could have provided confidence by making statements to the effect that ‘the war is over’. However, today these are unlikely to be viewed as sufficient in themselves and are probably of more use in starting a fresh sequence of events.
Policing reform is unfairly being held hostage to other aspects of the Agreement. With ongoing civil unrest on the streets, there is an urgent need to resolve this situation, and to give the police support as they serve and protect the community. The reforms to date are a fair reflection of the Patten Report.
However, while further reform on police issues is politically inevitable, the Governments should proceed with caution. Further change that undermines the operational efficiency, strength and morale of the police should be avoided. Those advocating radical change should avoid raising the bar of acceptability so high that they undermine the ability of the police to uphold the rule of law.
Security normalisation is less emotive than policing reform. No one wants to see watchtowers on the hills of South Armagh or troops on the streets, but at times they are an unfortunate security necessity. While the threat from the RIRA is a major concern, it is being contained. The main threat today comes mainly from low intensity and sectarian violence rather than outright terrorism. Confidence building measures from Republicans and Loyalists could easily facilitate major change in this area.
The stability of the institutions can be viewed in several ways. The re-election of the First and Deputy First Minister seems contingent upon some resolution of the above issues. The barring of Sinn Fein Ministers from the North-South institutions was petty and counterproductive. There is a need for all parties to make a public commitment to respect a convention that the relevant and appropriate Minister be represented on such delegations.
Alliance suggested a nine-point sequence to break the deadlock:
1. All parties re-affirm their commitment to the Agreement. This includes putting arms beyond use and appointing and supporting the relevant Minister taking part in North South Ministerial meetings.
2. Paramilitaries would issue statements, in their own words, confirming that ‘the war is over’.
3. The British Government would then outline further steps on normalisation which could now been taken.
4. The Government can make known its final position on policing reform, allowing the SDLP, and possibly even Sinn Fein, to announce their intention to take their places on the policing board.
5. The IRA, followed quickly by the loyalist paramilitaries, announce steps they are now prepared to make on substantial and verifiable action on placing weapons beyond use.
6. The UUP nominating officer makes it clear that a candidate will be nominated for First Minister, in the event of actual decommissioning taking place before this election.
7. The first acts of substantive and verifiable decommissioning occur.
8. The re-election of the First and Deputy First ministers proceeds.
9. The Governments make it clear that a fundamental review of structures will occur within the next 20 months.
The last point in the plan is particularly important. Beyond the immediate desire to implement the Agreement, there are wider problems with the Agreement that must be addressed. The institutions are not working as effectively as they should, and there are major differences of interpretation on the Agreement that need to be closed. The continued, and even deepening, divisions in this society pose a real threat to long term peace and stability. Support for the process has been slowly draining away. There is a major imperative to maintain cross-community support for the Agreement.
Decision-time is now approaching for the parties. The Governments are about to bat the ball back into our court. Issuing a package to the parties is a risky strategy. The temptation will be there for the parties to give conditional ‘Yes, but’ responses, seeking clarification and further negotiations. The Governments must resist this temptation, and not only make it clear that the package is being presented on a “take it or leave it” basis, but spell out what sanctions will be adopted against those that hold out and what consequences will befall the entire process from a general rejection.