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Article on 'Decommissioning' by Bob McCartney (UKUP)

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Article on Decommissioning by Bob McCartney, leader of the United Kingdom Unionist Party, published in the Irish Times Newspaper, 17 November 1998.

The requirement for all paramilitary groups to decommission their weaponry as a prerequisite for their political wings taking part in government is not a precondition imposed by other parties, it is a fundamental demand of democracy itself. This basic principle is recognised in every state where representative democratic government is practised. No agreement can set this principle aside and at the same time claim that the institutions it creates are democratic.

The initiative announced by Seamus Mallon at the SDLP conference fails utterly to recognise this basic tenet of democratic procedure. To equate the demand of the prounion parties that this principle be implemented with the repeated assertion of Sinn Féin/IRA that the latter will not give up its capacity for political violence is utterly fallacious. No democratic institution worthy of the name can exist if it contains representatives of a party backed by a private army which declares: "if the objectives of those who speak for us politically are not met, we reserve the right to achieve those aims by violent means and to retain the weaponry we currently possess to enable us to do so".

Seamus Mallon and his party need to be reminded that the declared purpose of the agreement is to bring peace through democratic institutions, not to supplant or supersede the central principle of democracy itself. Paragraph 10 of the Joint Declaration recognised this principle by stating that peace must involve a permanent end to violence and that only such parties as have shown that they abide by the democratic process are free to participate fully in democratic politics. In an attempt to circumvent this principle both governments, while repeatedly accepting that Sinn Féin and the IRA are "inextricably linked", have at the same time permitted Sinn Féin to participate in negotiations and perhaps even to enter government on the basis that it is a distinct political party with an electoral mandate which entitles it to take part in the democratic process of government. Despite the total inconsistency of these two positions, this "double think" has been stamped all over the government's dealings with Sinn Féin, not least in the terms of the agreement itself.

By treating Sinn Féin within the agreement as a democratic party like all the others, the government has permitted it to shed its IRA connections and to falsely offer all sorts of commitments to exclusively peaceful means for the resolution of differences. As long as Sinn Féin is permitted to maintain the fiction that it is separate and distinct from the IRA, it has no more difficulty in giving such affirmations than it had when signing up to the Mitchell Principles.

By the same token, while Sinn Féin is placed on the same standing as other democratic parties it can happily affirm its commitment to the total disarmament of all paramilitary organisations. It simply has to claim that it is a political party with an electoral mandate and no weapons to decommission. In such circumstances, once recognised as a party similar to the others, it can happily agree "to use such influence as it may have" to achieve the decommissioning of all weapons by those like the IRA who do have weapons, but from whom it claims to be separate.

The reality, as opposed to the total fiction encapsulated in the agreement, is that Sinn Féin, the PUP and the UDP are not at all the same as the other parties. These three are the political fronts for terrorist organisations responsible for thousands of deaths, countless hideous injuries and the mass destruction of property, organisations which to the present day are engaged in murder, shootings, brutal beatings, intimidation and criminality of every kind from drug peddling to extortion and racketeering. Of these activities no one wants to know, for they are "unhelpful to the peace process". For our government to support an agreement which on the face of it treats such parties as normal and democratic while the Prime Minister continues to claim that Sinn Féin is "inextricably linked" with the IRA is not only politically shameful but morally wrong.

Almost every informed political scientist and experienced political journalist who has written about Sinn Féin and the IRA has stated or inferred that many of the highest offices in both are occupied by the same people. The Prime Minister and the Secretary of State, as well as their security advisers, are well aware of these connections. Indeed, such information is the very basis for their repeated assertions that the two are inextricably linked; and inextricably means they can never be separated.

Despite all this, Sinn Féin was treated in the negotiations and the agreement as if it were merely a democratic party which could do no more than exert such influence as it might have. But by what means or criteria can the discharge of even that worthless obligation be proved? On any interpretation of the clause which imposes that duty, even if the IRA does not hand over a single bullet Sinn Féin would still retain all its rights under the agreement unless by some miracle there was acceptable proof that it had not used its influence.

Seamus Mallon thunders at the SDLP party conference that his party will throw Sinn Féin out of government if decommissioning is not delivered within two years. For a man who treats the agreement as written in stone this is mere empty rhetoric and he knows it. Provided Sinn Féin complies with paragraph 3 of the decommissioning section neither he, nor anyone else, can throw it out of government.

The UKUP left the talks and supported the "No" campaign on the basis that the decommissioning of weapons prior to inclusion in the democratic process was an inescapable inference of paragraph 10 of the Joint Declaration, and was recognised as such by both governments at that time. However both governments, the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP accepted a weakening of that principle during the talks by agreeing with Senator Mitchell's proposal that political negotiations towards an agreement and the process of decommissioning should proceed towards completion on parallel tracks. Although this political agreement was reached on April 10th, 1998, the decommissioning train never left the station! Did Seamus Mallon or Dr Mowlam complain about this breach of a twin track approach which they had both been repeating with nauseating regularity? They uttered not a word, yet Seamus would have unionists embark on another journey into Never Never Land on the basis of his valueless assurance.

The desire of the British government to obtain an agreement that would not only secure the mainland against attack but bolster Mr Blair's relationship with an American President-under-fire dominated all other considerations, including those of democratic principle. The Ulster Unionist leadership allowed itself to be pressured into an agreement that perpetuated the fiction of the separateness of Sinn Féin and the IRA; an agreement that contained no clear and express terms that the IRA must decommission its armaments before Sinn Féin and the IRA's prisoners could benefit from the agreement's terms! By this failure they have permitted both Sinn Féin and the SDLP to use the terms of the agreement itself to subvert the principles of democratic government itself. Decommissioning is a necessary requirement because without it real democracy is dead.

What the agreement does do, as its forebear the Framework Document intended, is to provide political institutions for transporting Northern Ireland out of the United Kingdom and into the Republic of Ireland. Sinn Féin's view of the agreement as a transitional phase has been used to persuade the IRA to maintain what passes for a ceasefire. Once the Ulster Unionists begin to recognise where the agreement is taking them they will protest and even try to inhibit progress in that direction; but one factor will ensure the process continues to its planned destination. That factor is the capacity of the IRA to threaten the City of London and the British economy; and that is the real reason why there will never be any effective decommissioning by the IRA until Sinn Féin's political objective of Irish unity is achieved.

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