Article by Prime Minister Tony Blair, written for The Belfast Telegraph, 5 July 1999
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Article written by the Prime Minister, Mr. Tony Blair for the Belfast Telegraph, published on Monday 5 July 1999.
The Belfast Telegraph editorial on Saturday asked Unionists to reflect on what is in last Friday's agreement before accepting or rejecting it.
Pose the hard questions to me and I will try to answer them. Engage. That's all I plead for. Don't just say 'no' because if you do, a historic opportunity will have been lost.
Once more, let me set out the essence of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) of April 1998. The principle of consent: secure. The Irish Constitution, abandoning their legal claim to Northern Ireland: changed. A devolved Assembly: established. All vital Unionist demands for over 70 years. In return, justice and equality of treatment, including sharing power with all who have a democratic mandate.
One final problem remained. Unionists rightly object to sitting in a government with people who have a private army in reserve and who can threaten to use it any time something happens they don't like. Any democrat can see the force of this. I certainly do. Hence the issue of decommissioning.
The Good Friday Agreement makes it clear decommissioning must happen. It is an obligation. But it is not a prior condition of the Executive being formed.
What we agreed last Friday works in the following way.
The Executive is formed. But, within days, the process of decommissioning must begin. That process begins only when (a) the paramilitary organisation gives a "clear and unambiguous" statement of intent to decommission; (b) appoints a representative who then sits down with the Independent Commission on Decommissioning (ICD) to discuss how it is to be done.
The ICD - headed by General de Chastelain, acknowledged by everyone to be tough and of total integrity - certifies the process has indeed then begun. So, literally within a couple of days, the ICD must issue its first certification. I will even say that if it doesn't, then the Executive is immediately unwound. So the risk to unionists is at most a few days prior to the definitive IRA statement of intent.
Then actual decommissioning has to follow. The exact time is not in the hands of the Governments or the paramilitaries. It is up to General de Chastelain, who on Friday indicated the timescale of a few weeks. He certifies actual decommissioning has begun. Again, if he doesn't, then the Executive is automatically unwound.
Then he produces reports in September, October, December certifying further progress on decommissioning until, in May 2000 (the date in the GFA), decommissioning is complete. If at any time he does not certify progress, then again the failsafe kicks in to protect the unionists.
So, rather than a token act of decommissioning, simultaneous with the forming of the Executive, this delivers a complete process for the decommissioning of ALL weapons in according with the specifications of the GFA.
All this requires a dramatic and historic shift in republican thinking. It is therefore somewhat bewildering to find it is unionists who are opposed to it. Let me try to deal with the objections I hear about.
First, people say this is a breach of 'no guns, no government'.
Many of the people who say this phrase are prepared to allow Sinn Fein into the Executive after a token act of decommissioning. This is what the earlier Hillsborough Declaration, supported by the unionists, envisaged.
Suppose this happens. Sinn Fein would then be sitting in government and, yes, there would have been an act of decommissioning, but the rest of the IRA arsenal would remain. So there would be guns and government.
Under our latest proposal ALL weapons go under a defined process independently ceritified. Surely this is far better than one isolated act with no guarantee of anything more? And it has the added advantage of being in accordance with the GFA, not in breach of it.
It is said the "failsafe" gives the IRA "a veto" on devolution, because if they don't decommission they can bring it to an end. But we might as well say they have a "veto" now since if they don't do prior or simulatneous decommissioning the unionists feel they can't sit in an Executive with them.
The so-called "veto" is actually the necessary guarantee to the unionists that the IRA has to decommission or Sinn Fein can't carry on being part of the Executive.
So we are no worse off than now. What's more, everyone will know why the button has been pushed. Since it will be a negative de Chastelain report that triggers the re-wind, it will be clear where the blame lies.
But is is said why shouldn't we simply expel Sinn Fein from the Executive and carry on? The answer is: that is precisely what can happen. The others can move on minus the defaulting party.
But what I can't do, because I don't have the power to, is to make the other parties agree to sit in a new Executive. I can't force Mr Paisley to sit in one now. I can't force other parties to agree to go on without Sinn Fein. I can ensure Sinn Fein aren't in the Executive if they default. What I can't do is ensure other parties then form a new Executive. But they will have an opportunity to do so.
In a worst case scenario, the agreement would work like this: a negative de Chastelain; an automatic suspension of devolution; a review in which we try to agree to move on in a new way. The details of this are surely the very things we should discuss in the context of the proposed legislation.
I simply ask people not to rule the whole thing out before, at least, they have discussed it with me.
So I plead with people: keep an open mind. Test the details. Just suppose this works. The whole future of Northern Ireland is then different. A new dispensation for Northern Ireland arrives. There is a political settlement. There is the decommissioning of paramilitary weapons - and Loyalist ones must go too - this isn't just an issue for Republicans.
Are we really not even going to give it a try? Can we not wait a few days and then a few weeks to see, to test the quality of the commitment? Northern Ireland has endured 30 years of violence. Is it not worth enduring 30 days to put the agreement to the test? It might just be the key to ending the violence for good.
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