5th December 1999
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Thoughts from LondonDo you want to watch society rot away?

In a momentous week in the politics of sectarian-conflict-ridden Northern Ireland, power was devolved on November 25 to a local assembly in the hope that peace will prevail.

Politicians from political groups that in earlier days would not even be seen with each other, sat together in the assembly early last week to elect their cross-community 10-member cabinet which cut across the religious divide that for nearly 30 years had seen Northern Ireland drenched in blood.

It was indeed heartening to watch Gerry Adams, the leader of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) held responsible for years of terrorist violence, calmly nominate candidates from his party to cabinet posts in a gesture that recalled the best in democratic politics.

Among those who took a seat in the new Northern Ireland cabinet was Martin McGuinness, one time chief-of-staff of the IRA and a hated figure among Unionists who have sought to keep Northern Ireland's political links with Britain. 

Mr. McGuinness is now Education Minister in a cabinet headed by David Trimble, the leader of the Protestant Ulster Unionist Party(UUP) as First Minister.

In just one week Northern Ireland politics has undergone unprecedented change, surely an experience from which Sri Lanka, faced with its own secessionist struggle, could draw valuable lessons if all sides to its conflict are serious in ending the politics of violence and establishing a peaceful, democratic polity.

The attempts to restart peaceful governance in Northern Ireland is somewhat more complicated than our own might seem. For it needed not only the determination of the British Government to pursue the path of peaceful negotiation but also the political will of the leaders and people of the Republic of Ireland in the south.

The Irish Republic's constitutional claim to Northern Ireland was scrapped last week just hours after a new British-Irish agreement was signed in Dublin by Britain's Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Mandelson and the Irish Foreign Minister David Andrews.

The particular provisions in the Irish constitution which laid claim to Northern Ireland, were dropped on a proposal by Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern at a cabinet meeting.

Last year the people of the Irish Republic voted to amend Articles 2 and 3 of the constitution. The new wording in the amendments was to come into effect only when all aspects of the Good Friday Agreement signed last year by the warring parties in the Northern Ireland conflict were in place.

This is a very crucial matter and underlines the essentially democratic nature of future relations between the two parts of Ireland- the independent Irish Republic and Northern Ireland which will remain politically-linked to Britain.

The new wording makes it clear that a united Ireland will be created only by peaceful means and with the consent of a majority of people democratically expressed in both parts of the island.

What will devolution mean for Northern Ireland in terms of political power and power sharing? 

This again is a vital matter. If devolution only meant some insignificant power being granted to the Northern Ireland Assembly while Westminster retained all the crucial matters in its own hands, it would have been a futile exercise. Had that been the case, it is hardly likely that even the Unionists would have gone along with the Belfast Agreement.

Certainly, not the Republicans who would then have made political capital out of this to rally support for a hardline stance and possibly the resumption of violence both in Northern Ireland and mainland Britain.

Fortunately saner counsel prevailed and some substantial powers have been given to the new assembly with Westminster retaining control of some critical areas.

Under the Belfast Agreement, full legislative and executive power was given to the 108-member Northern Ireland Assembly, for agriculture, education, economic development, health and social services, environment and finance. The assembly will not have tax-raising powers.

Britain's Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will retain control over "reserved" subjects (a phrase familiar to those who have followed the early debates on devolving power to our provincial councils) such as police, security, prisons and the criminal justice system.

The assembly can, if it so wishes, legislate in those areas but only with the approval of the Secretary of State and the parliament in Westminster.

Several matters such as defence, taxation, appointment of judges and international relations remain under the control of the British Government.

All this appears to spell success this time around after former United States senator George Mitchell managed to talk groups from across Northern Ireland's political spectrum to become part of the ruling executive.

It is of course true that Northern Ireland has travelled this course before. It was 26 years ago that a power-sharing government under the leadership of Brian Faulkner was established there. The Sunningdale arrangement fell apart in a mere five months. It failed to survive the pressures generated by the IRA, on the one hand, and by the loyalist strikers, on the other.

But there are two key differences. One primary reason for the failure of the Sunningdale deal was Ireland's claim to the territory of Ulster. That has now disappeared with the Irish republic renouncing its claim.

The other is that attempts at setting up governments collapsed in the 1970s and 80s because they were built round coalitions formed by centrist groups. Today's government embraces groups of all political hues.

While there is merit in bringing all political pigmentations together, it raises the question of trust among them. Have the extremists shed their militancy and moved sufficiently close to the political centre to breed a new trust or will the old antagonisms continue to haunt Northern Ireland?

Central to this are the weapons in the hands of different paramilitary groups, particularly the IRA. While the IRA, under pressure, will send a representative to negotiate with Canadian General John de Chastelain, head of the International Decommissioning Commission, on the handover of arms, there is no definitive sign from them on when the surrender would begin and end.

This absence of a timetable has provoked the Ulster Unionist Party to reconvene its council in February to consider progress in decommissioning of weapons. If the council believes that according to Gen. de Chastelain's progress report, due in January the IRA has been dragging its feet on weapons surrender, UUP leader David Trimble will resign as First Minister along with party colleagues on the executive.

This was a condition on which Mr. Trimble managed to squeeze through in the vote two Saturdays ago when the council met to decide whether to accept power sharing with the Sinn Fein without any firm commitment from the IRA.

While there are two or three months in which to knock down old prejudices and try to make this work, a crucial factor that will determine the future is whether the IRA shows a genuine desire for peace by disarming sufficiently to convince its critics.

There is much that all parties in Sri Lanka can learn from the Northern Ireland peace process in their attempts to unravel our own conflictual situation.

One is to take a very, very serious look at whether we can produce widely acceptable agreement on our own without the genuine good offices of external mediators. While the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister keeps rejecting any outside help, those who have followed the Northern Ireland imbroglio in recent months know that it would never have reached this stage had it not been for the determined efforts of George Mitchell.

Sri Lankan leaders who reject foreign assistance must ask themselves a fundamental question. Do they want somehow to settle this cancer in the Sri Lankan bodypolitic or do they want to sit on some so-called principle, surrounded by their bodyguards and other obstacles to a peaceful community life and watch society rot away?

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