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Article by Prime Minister Tony Blair, written for The Sunday Times, 4 July 1999

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Research: Fionnuala McKenna
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Article prepared by the Prime Minister, Mr Tony Blair, and published in the Sunday Times on 4 July 1999.

Friday's agreement offers Ulster a real hope of peace. I have no doubt of it at all. Rejection of it would not just be tragic. It would be inexplicable. I simply ask people to study the agreement. If they do, I believe they will support it, most strongly of all in the unionist community.

Taken together with the Good Friday agreement (GFA) this offers unionists every key demand they have made since Partition 80 years ago. The principle of consent - no change to the constitutional status of Northern Ireland without the consent of the majority of people - is enshrined. The Irish Constitution has been changed to accommodate that principle, and Dublin no longer lays legal claim to Northern Ireland.

A devolved Assembly and government for Northern Ireland is now there for the taking. When I first came to Northern Ireland as prime minister, these demands were all pressed on me as what unionists really needed. I have delivered them all.

The last issue, a vital one not just for unionists but for all democrats, is an end to violence; and most difficult of all, the decommissioning of paramilitary weapons. In all their history, republicans have never agreed to decommission.

Last Friday's agreement can now deliver it. Within days of devolution, the paramilitary organisations, including the IRA, must notify intention to decommission. If they don't, then there is a failsafe that unwinds devolution.

Within weeks, they must actually decommission. The process is verified by an independent commission, headed by the highly respected General John de Chastelain. Decommissioning then continues up until May 2000. It then has to be certified as complete.

If at any point, the commission certifies that decommissioning is not being carried out in the way demanded, then devolution is again halted and put into reverse. This failsafe will be put in legislation and made automatic.

So there is not just one act of decommissioning but a process leading to complete decommissioning. It is subject to independent scrutiny and the whole thing given a failsafe legislative protection.

Were this now to be rejected, just because it didn't offer a token act of decommissioning before devolution, it would be very difficult to explain.

We have had 30 years of bloodshed and murder in the "Troubles" of Northern Ireland. After 30 years of terror, in which thousands have died, been maimed or brutalised, whole families traumatised by their grief, whole communities torn apart in bitterness, to say nothing of the billions of pounds spent dealing with this tragedy, the whole of Northern Ireland blighted by it - is it really not worth waiting 30 days to see if it is ended?

There will be republicans who reject it because they cannot give up violence. Some loyalist paramilitaries will do the same.

They are people lost to democracy for ever.

But for democrats to say "no" is hard to fathom. The alternative to this agreement is not decommissioning faster or on different terms, it is no decommissioning at all: ever. Those most vociferously opposed to the GFA have never had an alternative to it and don't have one now.

There are then a number of detailed arguments on the substance of what was agreed last Friday. First, it is said that it is a worse deal than the Hillsborough declaration of April, which was rejected by republicans. I suggest people study the two.

Hillsborough offered at best a token act of decommissioning simultaneously with devolution. It offered no proper subsequent process to secure all decommissioning. It involved no statement of intention to decommission on a specific timetable.

It demanded equivalent acts of decommissioning from everyone else, including the British government. It wasn't even called decommissioning but an act of reconciliation. It was imperfect.

And I have no doubt that one of the reasons one side accepted it is that the other rejected it, sadly a common feature of Northern Ireland negotiations. The reason for rejection by Sinn Féin was that prior decommissioning was not in accordance with the GFA.

Decommissioning is an obligation. It isn't a precondition and they took the view they could persuade people to decommission in accordance with the GFA but not depart from it.

The next argument against last Friday is that Sinn Féin are merely saying they "could" successfully persuade the IRA to decommission, not that they will. But the point is that decommissioning under this agreement is not dependent on words. It is dependent on actions.

I share David Trimble's insistence that the process of decommissioning had to start within days of devolution and that the subsequent actual acts of decommissioning be independently verified, with the failsafe kicking in to unravel it all, if decommissioning didn't happen.

So unless words are followed by deeds, devolution is immediately reversed. And the process of decommissioning means - again study the detail - that the IRA, not Sinn Féin, have to give a clear and unambiguous intention to decommission.

The next argument is that the failsafe suspends the whole of devolution, it doesn't just expel Sinn Féin. Surely, people say, if Sinn Féin are responsible for the default, why should every one else be punished?

This is simply based on a misunderstanding of what is to happen. Should decommissioning not happen in the way the independent commission sets out, we just go back to where we are now. So we are no worse off than today. That process of suspension is automatic. Back to square one.

But there would be this clear difference. We would then know that the default was Sinn Féin's and it would be open to the other parties to agree to move forward without Sinn Féin. What we cannot do is make them do so, not just because that is in breach of the GFA, but because if they didn't agree, they would simply refuse.

I can't force people to sit in an executive. I can't make people sit in a government. So the procedure is: automatic suspension followed by a review that allows the parties to move forward without the defaulting party should they want to do so.

Surely that is a better course to follow - where we are no worse off than today, where the blame would be very clear - than a situation where we refuse to put the issue to the test and allow Sinn Féin the massive propaganda victory of being able to say: we were never even given the chance to get decommissioning but excluded from the executive. The blame would fall on the unionists. It would be a tactical own goal of monumental proportions.

That brings us back to the central issue. If we can't even wait for a few weeks to test the sincerity of Sinn Féin's new and historic commitment, when the worst that can happen is that the failsafe is triggered and we are back to square one, with the blame for failure clear, the outside world simply will not understand. It would hand the whole of the high ground to the anti-unionist cause.

I value the union. I value Northern Ireland's contribution to the United Kingdom. But I believe also in justice and equality and, in common with the majority of decent people in Northern Ireland, I detest religious and racial bigotry of any kind.

On offer to Northern Ireland is not just an end to terror. It is a start to justice and fair treatment for all. So I say to all in Northern Ireland to look at the proposal I put forward with the Irish prime minister on Friday, study it and realise it gives us an historic opportunity to test, once and for all, whether the people of Northern Ireland really can live together in peace.

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