This is my first article as the new Alliance leader. It couldn’t have come at a more difficult time for Northern Ireland.
Of course, right now Northern Ireland’s problems appear almost petty compared to the war on terrorism being fought around the world. But we also have our own dilemma with terrorists and their weapons of death.
I want to send a message straight to the republican movement; Alliance believes there has never been a better time for the IRA to decommission. It might seem like a strange statement to make, but as we stare into the political abyss once again, only a major move by republicans now seems able to save the Agreement.
Of course, loyalist paramilitaries – who have been responsible for some of the most disgusting murders of the Troubles during their ‘ceasefire’ – must also decommission.
But it is the IRA that holds the cards to progress at this particular point in time.
Experience has shown that unionist deadlines will never get results, because the talks never worked on that basis. But as we fly headlong towards the collapse of power sharing, surely now is the time for the IRA to prove the doubters wrong. Progress comes when people are brought together and when they seek to reach an accommodation.
In proposing his exclusion motion last Monday, David Trimble said his objective was to have both decommissioning and devolution. It wasn’t. He was merely attempting to buy off his internal dissidents. It was yet another monumental blunder by the former first minister. His sectarian motion, followed by further threats of resignation, has, as Seamus Mallon and I have said, every potential to destroy devolution without bringing decommissioning any further forward. It is a sad fact that impatient unionists have driven the price of decommissioning up so high that they have painted themselves into a corner. They have given Sinn Fein a stick to beat more and more concessions out of the Government.
Nevertheless, putting some weapons beyond use would resolve so much, and help rebuild the trust lost following the arrest of three IRA suspects in Colombia. It wasn’t just unionists that felt betrayed when the story came out about republicans meeting with drug-dealing FARC terrorists in the South American jungle. The US government and Irish-Americans suddenly began to see the IRA in a new light – especially after the heartbreaking terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon.
Yes, there is a new attitude towards terrorism in all its evil forms. Following the attacks – which killed more people in two hours than died in the entire Troubles – the United States has become 100 percent dedicated to beating terrorism. The old excuses won’t wash any more, no matter how good paramilitary politicians are at verbal gymnastics. Mr Adams might think that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter – but no-one believes him anymore.
The United States – both the government and the Irish-American community – could play a major role in bringing real pressure on the IRA at this time. Their new attitude to terrorism has been forged in the most incredible suffering, but it is important that our friends across the Atlantic do not lose sight of the picture here in Northern Ireland. They have the power to prevent funding making its way from their shores to those who stubbornly hold onto their arms here. America can knock heads together if it wants, and could make Northern Ireland their first big success in the war on terrorism – without firing a single shot.
Personally, I don’t really care how weapons are rendered useless. Whether it’s a bomb in a bog or concrete poured into a bunker, all Alliance needs is for the deed to be done in a way that the Northern Irish community can have confidence in. It’s academic anyway. The IRA has told General de Chastelain how it will be done. All we need to know is when, otherwise Sinn Fein will forever remain an obstacle to stability. I wonder how that will go down in the Irish Republic when they stand for election there next year.
Alliance firmly believes that is also absolutely essential that loyalists lay down their guns for good. They have stretched the definition of a ‘ceasefire’ to beyond breaking point and rubbed the public’s nose in the Agreement. In fact, Alliance has said that the UDA and LVF ceasefires are over, and the Secretary of State should have stuck to his guns and said so.
Republicans say they are the defenders of the Catholic community, and that loyalist paramilitary attacks make decommissioning impossible. There is no doubt in my mind that the UDA and others have been trying to provoke the IRA into retaliating. But Semtex and barrack busters were never defensive weapons in anyone’s book.
So republicans must ask themselves the question: ‘What do we really want – to share power in a local Assembly or go back to direct rule from London?’ The first has the potential to dramatically improve life here immeasurably, as it has already done, while the latter will lead to political vacuum. And in my book, vacuum equals violence. No-one wants to see Westminster MPs, with little or no knowledge of Northern Ireland, back in the driving seat. That would be a betrayal of the people. Everyone is agreed that a devolved government run by local politicians is the best scenario. If republicans took the high moral ground now, they would gain a new respect far beyond these shores.
Let’s make it work.