Peace Unravelling in Northern Ireland?
With T.R. Reid
Tuesday, February 15, 2000, 11 a.m. EST
T.R. Reid, Post correspondent in London, was online Tuesday, Feb. 15 at 11 a.m. discussing developments in Northern Ireland, including the reimposition of British rule and the refusal of the Irish Republican Army to disarm.
Reid's dispatch on Saturday reported that elected officials in Ireland are expressing optimism that the peace proces will survive while Sinn Fein leaders are criticizing the British decision to reimpose its authority.
Read the transcript of the discussion with T.R. Reid below
Welcome to washingtonpost.com's discussion with London bureau chief T.R. Reid. Reid has been covering the Northern Ireland peace talks and power sharing government for the Post and is ready to take your questions.
Is the latest IRA initiative to break the impasse over decommissioning a quid pro quo matter, in which the IRA is asking for a timetable and specific actions from the British government related to the demilitarization of the North's security arrangements? And if so, how far do you think the British will move on this?
T.R. Reid: Good morning, everybody--or good afternoon, or evening, depending on where in the world your are. I'm writing from London, a busy town in recent days because of the Aghan hijacking, the Pinochet case, and of course the latest calamity in Northern Ireland's roller-coaster peace process.
I spent most of today at the Royal Courts of Justice, watching the law suit in which the historian --or perhaps pseudo-historian-- David Irving is fighting the charge that he is a "holocaust denier." Totally gripping courtroom drama. Please read my story about this in the WashPost soon.
Now, to the question: As many of you know, North. Ireland's new government was "suspended" last Friday, just 2 months after it began. As in the past, the stumbling block is "decommissioning," or disarmament, by the IRA.
I tyhink the IRA has clearly moved in recent weeks, and recent days, and now seems to be more inclined than ever before to talk about giving up its weapons. Still, the latest IRA offer, issued last Friday evening, is not enough. As your question indicates, the IRA is highly specific about all the things the British Army should do, but there are no specifics as yet about what the IRA intends to do.
YEs, the IRA has offered a quid pro quo: if the British Army pulls some troops out of the 6 counties, the IRA will reciprocate. I think the British would buy that deal, because they British Army is leaving anyway. But the deal has to be more specific than what the IRA has said so far.
How would the IRA put its arms beyond use? Would they simply disclose the location of an arms dump or two in the Republic?
T.R. Reid: I don't think the IRA is going to tell anybody where the guns are. I mentioned in a previous question that the IRA is quite specific about what the British Army should do. In Belfast last Friday, Gerry Kelly of Sinn Fein was passing out a map showing 300-plus British installations in N.I. So I said, "Why don't you give us a map showing the IRA installations?" And the Sinn Fein guys looked at me as if I were wacky.
Still, it's possible the IRA could "put weapons beyond use" in various ways. Blow up an arms cache, with somebody from the decommissioning board on hand to watch. Pour concrete over one of the stone walls where they hide weapons. Pour acid or asphalt or something over the anti-aircraft missile launchers. There are ways to render the guns unuseable, without turning them in.
brooklyn new york.:
WHY,IN YOUR OPINION,DID THE IRA NOT HAVE A CLAUSE IN THE ORIGINAL AGREEMENT WHEREBY THE TERRORIST FORCES LOYAL TO THE BRITISH CROWN WOULD HAVE TO GIVE UP ARMS ALSO?
T.R. Reid: But there is language like that in the Good Friday Agreement. It says "all paramilitary organizations" will give up all their weapons. And it sets a goal for achieving this--May 22, 2000 (that day is two years after the referendum in which the Good Friday plan was approved).
The trouble is, the agreement doesn't really bind any of the various armies to disarm. All it says it that the political parties are bound to use "any influence they may have" to convince the armies to disarm.
Since the Good Friday plan applies to all the paramilitaries, both "republican" and "loyalist," why is all the attention focussed on the IRA? Good question, and there's a straightforward answer. The IRA is the biggest and most deadly of all the secular armies. It has tens or perhaps hundreds of times as many weapons as the loyalist groups. And the IRA has been much more willing to use its bombs, etc. against innocent bystanders. At Omagh, an IRA spin-off using a car stolen by the IRA and IRA explosives killed a bunch of grandmothers and school children. The loyalists are deadly, but they don't go after innocent grandmothers. That's why the attention is focussed on the IRA. Those guys sit back in their barns and plot how to kill women and children.
Can you tell us about the latest developments in the Augusto Pinochet saga? Will his medical records be released? Will he be sent back to Chile or will today's court decision further delay Home Secretary Straw's ruling?
T.R. Reid: Yes, Augusto Pinochet's medical records are now going to be released to the lawyers for Belgium and various human rights groups. They want to see these records because they want to challenge the British government determination that Pinochet is too sick to stand trial.
My guess is that this decision will most likely hasten the day of Pinochet's freedom. Here's why: The British gov't. ruling was based on the unanimous conclusion of four doctors with no interest in the case (or so the government says). I doubt that Belgium can find a doctor who is willing to say that four of his peers are all wrong. And if the medical report stands up, there's not much legal basis left to challenge the decision that Pinochet should be released.
My guess is that Pinochet will go home to chile pretty soon.
Ridgewood, New Jersey:
Given the fact that on October 12, 1999 David Trimble got the Secretary of Northern Ireland he had asked for as early as June 1999, and that Mr. Peter Mandelson on Friday fulfilled the promise he made with the UUP in November of 1999 to protect the Unionist Veto to the power sharing arrangement they never wanted, do you believe that any future reconstitution of the Executive and Assembly can ever again enjoy the confidence of nationalists and republicans?
T.R. Reid: Your question seems to assume that Mandelson is a unionist sympathizer and was given his job for that reason. I have been deluged with messages from Americans saying this. I think you're wrong.
Mandelson got this job because he is Tony Blair's smartest political advisor, and Blair thought this might be the guy who could finally produce a lasting government in N. Ireland. Also, Mandelson was in a difficult political situation and needed a new cabinet job. I don't think he got the job because Trimble asked for him.
You should have heard Trimble, John Taylor, and Ian Paisley bitching about Mandelson after he agreed to implement the Patten recommendations on the RUC. At that time, they definitely did not sound like Mandelson supporters.
Do you feel there is a chance that the North will someday finally go back to being part of the Irish Republic, where it belongs?
T.R. Reid: Well, you think the 6 counties belong in the Republic. Does it matter to you what the people who happen to live in the six counties think? More than 70 percent of the them voted for the Good Friday Agreement, which say that Northern Ireland remains part of Britain (until there's a referendum in favor of merger with the South.)
My guess is that, during this century, the six counties will merge with the Republic. And the Protestants there will continue to vote for their own parties and get a fairly sizable block --maybe 20 % of the seats --in the Dail. And Ireland will be a different country from the one we know today.
Some have suggested that the IRA miscalculated the will of the British government re decommisioning and hoped to
finesse -or fudge-the giving up of arms forcing the British into pulling a
rabbit out of the hat for Trimble with the result being the Decmmisioning crisis would pass. Did the IRA misjudge the situation?
T.R. Reid: Yes. Sinn Fein and the IRA let themselves get out-maneuvered by David Trimble. I think this is one of the reasons the Sinners are so angry right now; they realize that they played the politics wrong.
It was particularly striking to watch the Sinn Fein leaders last week when major US papers--NY Times, WashPost, Phila. Inquirer, and even the Boston Globe --all had editorials siding with Trimble and saying it was time for the IRA to move. That hasn't happened before.
The reasom my recent stories have been fairly optimistic, despite the collapse of the new government, is that I think Trimble did force the IRA to move. And they can't go back now. The IRA has now agreed that decommissioning is an "essential element" of a successful peace. They never said that before last week.
How much influence does Irish PM Bertie Ahern have over the Republicans in Northern Ireland? What roles are he and British PM Tony Blair playing in this phase of the process?
T.R. Reid: Bertie Ahearn has real influence on the Republicans in the North. In a larger sense, the political situation in the Republic is a powerful influence. Sinn Fein wants to be a much bigger player in politics in the Republic. But if Sinn Fein is seen as the obstacle to peace in the North, it will be a disaster for their political ambitions in the Republic.
As I wrote last week, it's one thing for Sinn Fein and the IRA to thumb their noses at Tony Blair or David Trimble. It is much harder for a party and an army dedicated to the cause of Irish unity to ignore the government of Ireland.
Ahearn is in a interesting political spot. He definitely wants the Good Friday plan to work, and his party will benefit strongly if it does. On the other hand, he has to see Sinn Fein as a potential rival a few years down the road. So if he can put Sinn Fein on the hot spot now, it may make things easier for his own party, Fianna Fail, in the future.
If the IRA don't decomission and home rule isn't returned to Belfast, is there a danger the cease fire will also disintegrate?
T.R. Reid: Yes. There are a lot of guns around, a lot of anger, and centuries of religious animosity, Plus, the weapons seem to be accessible to some nut cases. As I mentioned, the Omagh murders were carried out with IRA explosives, and evidently supervised by a guy who used to control the IRA arsenal. So as long as those bombs, mortars, and grenades are in IRA hands, it is possible they will be used to kill innocent people.
The loyalist armies, too, have been killers,
Still, the popular mood in N.I. right now is so firmly against violence that all the armies have to know they will undermine their own position if they return to violence. This is a strong impetus toward preserving the peace.
What do you think of the new Oasis single?
T.R. Reid: You mean "Go Let it Out." It's the no. 1 single in Britain as I write this, but it's pretty lame. And I know why, too.
It's almost tragic to say this, but both Liam and Noel have been tamed. They're both married, and they both became fathers in the past few months. They've lost that punk anger that gave them so much energy in the early '90's. As you know, the whole band fell apart except for the brothers.
I think Pulp is still a great band. Blur is a good band. Oasis kind of lost it, and will never get it back.
To wrap-up... What can we expect to happen in Northern Ireland in the next few days?
T.R. Reid: Over the next few weeks--not days, I'm afraid -- there will be pressure on the IRA to refine its latest offer, and pressure on the unionists to recognize that the IRA is moving in the right direction. I think Bill clinton will make a big push to get the government going again by May, because he was hoping to get another trip to Ireland in May.
And at some point, they will get the government back in place, accompanied by some form of decommissiong by some branch of the IRA.
As always, folks, I'm grateful for your questions and for your messages (even the ones pointing out my many mistakes). But really, chaps, at this point I must be saying ta-ta.
Our thanks to T.R. Reid for joining us and to all of you who participated.
Join us tomorrow when former Ambassador to Paraguay and El Salvador Robert E. White will discuss proposed U.S. aid to Colombia.
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