Last May, the people of Northern Ireland voted in overwhelming numbers for the Good Friday Agreement. But for over a year, the people have been denied the chance to see the tangible benefits of a devolved Assembly and North-South bodies.
The implementation fell behind on both the establishment of the power-sharing Executive and progress on decommissioning. Linking the two issues did not lead to progress on either, but paralysis on both. For many months now, it has been clear that some formula building upon the Agreement is necessary to break this impasse.
Alliance believes that the ‘Way Forward’ Joint Statement is the best opportunity to fulfil the popular will of the people. It is the responsibility of all the pro-Agreement parties to not only take collective ownership of this new approach, but to show leadership in selling it to their respective constituencies. We have nothing to lose, but so much to gain.
The ‘Way Forward’ opens the path not only to the creation of a power-sharing Executive, but to full and verifiable decommissioning — far better than mere token gestures.
This is a much better deal than was on offer at Hillsborough. That declaration merely suggested the ‘removal from use’ of some paramilitary weaponry after the nomination of Ministers under the d’Hondt formula, but before the formal transfer of devolved powers.
The Ulster Unionists jumped at this formula, yet it would have entailed their sharing power in an Executive with Sinn Fein with only limited decommissioning from the IRA. The ‘Way Forward’ offers us the much bigger prize of total and verifiable decommissioning, within a few days of the formation of an Executive.
We now have the public acceptance from all the pro-Agreement parties that total decommissioning by May 2000 is an obligation. In addition, they have agreed that decommissioning should be carried out in a manner determined by the Independent Commission on Decommissioning. It is expected that decommissioning from both Loyalists and Republicans will occur in parallel. This places substantial meat onto the bones of the commitments made by the parties last April, and constitutes an historic breakthrough.
Furthermore, Sinn Fein have indicated that they will persuade the IRA to decommission. But as Sinn Fein continue to maintain that they do not speak for the IRA, there is inevitably some lack of certainty in this language. Greater confidence could therefore be created by corroborating statements from the IRA itself.
A certain leap of faith will be required in proceeding with the Executive in the hope for eventual gains. But on this occasion the risks are outweighed by additional fail-safes will soon kick in if there is not sufficient progress on decommissioning.
The Governments have undertaken to legislate for a suspension of the operation of institutions and a review of the provisions of the Agreement in the event of breaches of obligations. Under a review of the Agreement, it will be possible for another Executive to be established on a different basis, and for the Assembly to continue to fulfil its statutory obligations.
These further checks will operate at more general level than those in the Pledge of Office and Article 25 of Strand One, which provide for the removal of an individual minister for the threat or actual use of violence.
Some argue that democrats should not be sharing power with those linked to paramilitaries. This idealised version of democracy ignores the splinters in the eyes of some of those making the claims, and the reality that democratic institutions must address both our divided society and emergence from a situation of conflict.
But there is still a problem as to how to regulate the mixture of exclusively democratically mandated parties with those with paramilitary links. The Mitchell Principles served this function during the Talks, and the Pledge of Office was developed for the Executive. Decommissioning for Alliance would be a further means to create confidence in the durability of cease-fires.
Some say that the fail-safes are not fair in that all the parties would be punished through the temporary loss of institutions in the event of the paramilitaries failing to meet their obligations, or any party refusing to work the system. In that event, we would be no worse overall than we are now. Nevertheless, some assurance would be appropriate that the institutions could be quickly relaunched without overly penalising us all.
Unionists should not reject this new document. They should listen to the arguments made in its favour. The anti-Agreement Unionists have only produced a whimper. They would be comprehensively silenced if this new approach delivered total and verifiable decommissioning.
It would be a tragic mistake to pass up this opportunity. There may not be a better chance to achieve decommissioning. Otherwise, so much that we have achieved in recent years will be placed in jeopardy. It is vital that we do not pass up this historic opportunity.