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Northern Ireland: Why the IRA shifted on arms
THIS TIME there can be no doubt that the latest IRA statement on decommissioning is indeed a "seismic shift".
Peter Hadden, Belfast
The agreement to open arms dumps for regular inspection by third parties is a long way from the "not a bullet, not an ounce' slogans that once adorned walls all over areas like West Belfast but which have now largely disappeared.
The statement, like everything that has emerged in the peace process, is ambiguous in places. But the promise to open a number of dumps means - no matter how the IRA present it - that the weapons in these dumps will effectively have been decommissioned.
The further promise, "to begin a process that will completely and verifiably put IRA arms beyond use" albeit with the proviso that there exists a political process "with the potential to remove the causes of the conflict" is a also major shift.
Those who still argue that this is a trick, a sophisticated ruse to fool the unionists and the British government into allowing republicans into the corridors of power, and that the weapons will be held for future use, have an unwarranted faith in the republican leadership and have missed the point entirely.
In truth the Adams-McGuinness leadership long ago decided to travel an exclusively political road. They correctly understood that the armed struggle had not succeeded and would not succeed.
However, instead of looking for an alternative method of struggle, or embracing socialist ideas which might have opened roads to the Protestant working class, they took an opposite course. They accepted the overtures of the US, British and Irish establishment and moved decisively to the right.
The delay and difficulty in moving on the arms issue was mainly due to opposition within the IRA, and the danger of a split. But by now the vast majority of republicans have had to accept that the idea of a return to "war" is not an option. Even most of those who argue against decommissioning advocate a "rust in peace" solution not a new military campaign.
David Trimble has to convince the Unionist Council that this IRA offer is "for real" before the Assembly can be reconvened. He has lost ground to the "no" camp within his own party and only just survived the recent leadership challenge.
However it is likely that he will carry the day, probably with a more comfortable majority than in the leadership vote. All but the most bigoted sections of unionism are coming to realise that for the IRA the war really is over.
They can see that the prize of decommissioning in return for what are secondary concessions on policing, demilitarisation and equality - much of which will come no matter whether the Assembly is there or not - is too great to miss.
It is also clear that the Paisleyite "no" camp have no alternative. Trimble can argue with effect that his strategy has forced concessions from the IRA, while that of Paisley would more likely mean IRA guns being brought into use, not put beyond use.
ALL THIS means that the Assembly will probably be back in place from 22 May and that it is not likely to topple in the short term. If this happens the reaction of most people will be relief that the peace process has not collapsed. However there will be little euphoria and few illusions that a lasting solution is any closer.
The power-sharing arrangement institutionalises sectarianism. These main parties, while co-operating at the top, will continue to whip up sectarianism on the ground in order to maintain their electoral support.
Their ongoing domination will reinforce sectarianism and lay the basis for renewed, probably worse, violence at a later stage.
The experience of the Assembly in the few weeks that it was running also revealed its cumbersome, undemocratic structure. The various sectarian checks and balances woven into its structure are liable to lead to paralysis. To break this paralysis, decisions are liable to be taken by ministerial dictat.
This already happened when Sinn Fein's Bairbre De Brun decided to close the Jubilee Maternity unit. The health committee, with its unionist majority, opposed this decision as did the Assembly but the decision still stood, and has been implemented.
The real advantage of the Assembly is that it can make the task of creating a socialist alternative to the sectarian parties easier. The new ministers will be responsible for health, education, roads, the environment, low pay and other key areas.
Their right-wing, pro-market policies will inevitably cost them support in orking-class areas. That means that a space for the building of a new working-class party, capable of uniting Catholics and Protestants around the idea of a socialist solution, can begin to emerge.
In The Socialist 12 May 2000: