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Crossing the Rubicon: October 2001-Ireland

Sometime shortly before Tuesday, October 23, General John de Chastelain and his fellow members of the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning (IICD) found real work. After four long years of patience, perseverance and a yeoman’s job of maintaining their independence and credibility, the Commission was able on that Tuesday to confirm as “significant” an event, witnessed by the Commission and earlier announced by the Irish Republican Army (IRA), by which the IRA implemented a scheme agreed with the IICD in August to put arms completely and verifiably beyond use. And the collective sigh of relief from the Island of Ireland was palpable.

The move by the IRA, carefully choreographed on the heals of trans-Atlantic statements by two very accomplished politicians, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein calling on the IRA to disarm in order to save the Northern Ireland Peace Process, was truly historic. While the popular mantra of the Republican constituency in Northern Ireland has been “not an ounce (referring to the explosive Semtex) not a bullet,” those dealing with the IRA know that the repugnance toward turning in weapons was much deeper than rhetoric. It related to the militaristic discipline of the IRA and the appearance of a surrender, the concern that such a decision would generate a huge split in the ranks of the Army (beyond that which has already taken place), the continuing threat from loyalist paramilitaries and a lack of trust in the police and the British government. The decision to decommission was one which many were convinced could never happen and that the Peace Process, which has lurched from crisis to crisis for the last three years, would implode unless the Unionists accepted the silence of the arms as sufficient. And it nearly did.

Just as Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness walked a tightrope which carried great risks so too did David Trimble, head of the Ulster Unionists, as he, balanced on a knife edge, with courage and skill held fast to the demands for decommissioning. It seemed at times that the peace in Northern Ireland would fail because the politics seemingly lacked certain ingredients which we in the United States (US) take for granted: common sense, pragmatism and compromise. Notwithstanding the entreaties and personal intervention of the world’s top leaders, endless hours spent by public servants in Ireland and Britain whose names will never be well known but who deserve enormous credit, intervention by influential Irish Americans, the interminable meetings and negotiating sessions over months and years, hopes raised and then dashed only to be raised again, there seemed to be little chance that either side would concede its immovable position.

It can be argued that two events so altered the landscape as to leave Sinn Fein and the IRA with no choice but the path chosen. The arrest of three alleged IRA members in Colombia for conspiring with the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionnarias de Colombia (FARC) guerrillas was a highly embarrassing revelation and served to threaten a huge rupture in the critical US support (both political and monetary) for the Republican movement. As Sinn Fein worked to extricate itself from that public relations nightmare, the tragic and world changing events of September 11 forever altered the view of civilized society toward any organization having any taint of terrorism even though weapons may be silent. Whether these were the defining events which finally caused the IRA to cross-over or whether the motivation was only, as they said, “…to save the peace process and to persuade others of our genuine intentions” is surely academic. For the important victory is that politics and democratic institutions appear to have won the day—though clearly peace is far from established and there are no doubt additional crises yet to be managed. Now a government must be reformed and the hard work of building political and constituency trust must commence in earnest. That will take much time and more herculean efforts by the statesmen and politicians.

But most importantly for now the path of politics and peace has won a major victory. In today’s world that is a “significant” event.

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United States Ambassador to Ireland, 1999-2001