Triumph for politics

The assertion by General de Chastelain on Monday (26 September): "We believe that the arms decommissioned (by the IRA) represent the totality of the IRA's arsenal".



He gave a number of reasons for asserting this: the volume of arms, ammunition and explosives put beyond use over the previous week under the supervision of himself, his two colleagues on the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning (IICD) and the two clerical witnesses; the fact that the amount of arms, ammunition and explosives decommissioned fitted with security forces' estimation of the size of the IRA arsenal; the condition of some of the material, notably the ammunition suggesting that it had been collected from disparate caches around the country; an assurance from an IRA person with him they were dealing and on whose word they had come to rely, that this was the totality of the arsenal.

His assertion was confirmed by his two colleagues on IICD and by the two clergymen, one of whom, Rev Harold Good, said: "Beyond any shadow of doubt the arms of the IRA have not been decommissioned".

In contrast with the fumbling, incoherent, unpersuasive performance of General de Chastelain in October 2003, when his testimony to partial IRA decommissioning then, caused the "done deal" between David Trimble's Ulster Unionists and Sinn FÈin to collapse, he was impressive and convincing on Monday.

It was disappointing then that Rev Ian Paisley should ridicule what General de Chastelain, his two colleagues and the two clerical witnesses had testified, saying they were relying solely on what they had been told by the IRA representative, when, manifestly, that was not the case.

Other DUP criticisms emerged on the following day (Tuesday 27 September): that it was acknowledged that some IRA arms had seeped out to dissident republicans; that there was a vagueness about the estimates of the IRA arsenal since no "tolerance levels" had been disclosed (whether the tolerance levels had been, for instance, of the order of 10 per cent either way or 50 per cent), whether indeed these estimates had been "cobbled together" by the security forces in Britain and Ireland simply to match what it was known the IRA was willing to disband.

These objections might be taken seriously had the DUP not asserted last December they would be satisfied if a representative nominated by them, Rev William McCrea, had been present while the decommissioning took place and provided the process was photographed. The presence of their own witness and the photographing of the process would have been entirely irrelevant to the new objections now raised by them. Neither their own witness nor photographs could have addressed the issue of tolerance levels, the issue of the "cobbling" together of the estimates and the seepage of IRA arms over the last several years.

Nevertheless the governments should address the issue of the tolerance levels, the seepage of weapons and when the estimates were formulated.

Of course it may be that the IRA has secreted some arms. But there are some things we now know for certain: that a huge arsenal has been decommissioned; that the republican movement as a whole assented and cooperated with this exercise, thereby signally in a powerful manner its commitment to purely peaceful and democratic means – this latter point remains relevant even if a section of the organisation has secreted a few pikes in the thatch.

It has been a hugely symbolic exercise and goes to the credibility and stature of several people. Among them are the two Prime Ministers, Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern. It would be churlish not to acknowledge the huge contribution that Gerry Adams has made to all of this. He has led the republican movement, for the first time in its history, to a commitment to purely peaceful and democratic means and to decommissioning.

But it is fair to single out two others as well, Fr Alex Reid and Charles Haughey. Fr Reid instigated the peace process, he stayed with it for twenty years at least now, through tough times and smooth. He did it largely without recognition and without expectation of recognition. His contribution has been immense.

Charles Haughey began the Irish government's part in the peace process. His secret engagement in the period 1987 to 1992, when he left office, was courageous and patriotic. Courageous because had his initiative been disclosed at the time it would have caused a political crisis that would have driven him for office. Patriotic for it was never likely he would have gained anything personally from the initiative which could not have been expected to come to fruition in a time scale to enable him to take credit.