Ireland Re-visited week 26

March 22, 2011

The Good Friday Agreement appeared to be holding strong in the face of some major incidents but with each passing crisis, the will of the agreement’s supporters was tested. Despite decommissioning some of its arsenal, the Provisional IRA was still active throughout Northern Ireland. The group was involved in arms importations, smuggling, intelligence gathering and punishment beatings. This behaviour did not go unnoticed and Unionist politicians used it to show why they could not trust Republicans, or in their own words, “terrorists working in government”. Loyalists too carried out similar activities but Unionists argued that unlike Sinn Fein, no popular Unionist party actively represented the Loyalist paramilitary factions.

The Ulster Unionist Party started to come under increasing pressure from members of its own party, the Unionist community at large and the DUP. The pressure did not just concern the Good Friday Agreement, but also a skepticism existed that working with Republicans was not realistic in the current circumstances. The Unionist people demanded a strong stance on Republicans and saw the UUP as a weak and feeble party that was giving too many concessions to the SDLP and Sinn Fein. The result of this saw the anti-Good Friday Agreement DUP defeat the UUP in the 2003 Assembly election. With the DUP’s electoral victory there now seemed no way forward for the Good Friday Agreement, especially with Ian Paisley presiding over the largest political party in the North as well as being a vocal critic of the agreement.

The DUP and Sinn Fein participated in negotiations with the British and Irish Government in 2004 to re-establish the institutions but neither party could agree on a workable solution and the talks failed. On the 28th July 2005 the Provisional IRA formally ended its armed campaign. With the peace process in danger of collapsing, Gerry Adams had called on the hierarchy of the Provisionals to declare an end to the campaign and embrace democracy to further their goals, which the group duly obliged. In hindsight, this declaration by the Provisionals came at a time when Northern Ireland could have gone one of two ways: towards peace and reconciliation, or back to tit-for-tat killings. In the statement the Provisional IRA stated that the group was now ending its 30 year long armed campaign and would follow a democratic path in the future. All Provisional IRA units were ordered to dump their arms and those arms would be put beyond use as quickly as possible, to be verified by two church witnesses, one Catholic and one Protestant clergyman.

The Provisional IRA went on to state that their decision was made only after a long consultation process with its members, who all had shown strong support for Sinn Fein’s peace strategy and that there was now “an alternative way to achieve the goal of a United Ireland”. Gerry Adams heralded the statement as a “courageous and confident initiative” and British Prime Minister Tony Blair agreed, stating that the Provisional IRA’s statement was a “step of unparalleled magnitude”. The United States administration also recognized the opportunity for peace, with the White House releasing a statement stating that the development was an “important and potentially historic statement”. Unionists however, were less enthused. DUP leader Ian Paisley said the Provisional IRA had “reverted to type after previous historic statements” and that “the IRA’s bona fides will be judged over the next months and years based on its behaviour and activity”.

To the Unionist community, words were not enough; it was actions which would define whether the peace process would be successful. The 26th September 2005 was another epoch in the history of Northern Ireland and went some way to alleviate Unionist fears, with the Provisional IRA backing up its intentions with some concrete evidence….