Arms and the Big Man…

THE SDLP have been portraying themselves as the last defender of the Agreement in recent weeks, to little noticeable effect. On decommissioning, the party’s position has shifted in emphasis over the last couple of weeks. Now the SDLP seem to be at one with the DUP over the matter of a Kodak moment of IRA arms.On November 25, senior SDLP negotiator Sean Farren warned republicans that the “tide of concessions” to the DUP must stop. On November 28, policing spokesman Alex Attwood said that the “SDLP accepts General De Chastelain’s words and sees and no reason why the full details of decommissioning has to be a secret”.

Fair enough. But then to turn around and publicly support one of the “concessions” to the DUP – a photo of decommissioned IRA arms – which is more than a step beyond the General’s words or an IICD inventory, seems either opportunistic or desperate. It’s also outside the Agreement, the framework which the SDLP claims to operate within.

Sinn Fein chairman Mitchel McLaughlin told the BBC that nationalists would be “puzzled, dismayed and angered” by the SDLP becoming an “amplifier for the demands of the DUP”.

He said: “Not for the first time the SDLP have departed completely from the terms of Good Friday Agreement on a crucial issue.”

Alliance Leader David Ford, who appeared alongside Attwood on Inside Politics at the weekend, also seemed somewhat concerned about the “fixation” on photos.

“If the issue is whether of not we are going to achieve decommissioning and an end to military activity, unionists need to hold their nerve and not demand more than is achievable,” he said.

“I think that the fact that photos are clearly going to be taken and independent observers will be there with the general are major steps forward which can provide community confidence.”

At the end of the day, well, tomorrow actually, it will be up to one man to determine how high he wants to set the bar – and he’s in Downing Street today. Maybe P O’Neill will phone, but if a relatively trivial matter (in the bigger scheme of things) like the publication of photos turn out to be the deal breaker, it will further damage already-weak public confidence in the process.

I don’t believe it is necessary to have a published photograph in the public domain – if only Paisley saw it, that would be enough to convince even the most hardline unionist that the event had occurred. Paisley should voice his support for the men of the cloth who will bear witness any disarmament and take their word as, excuse the pun, gospel.

For Paisley or the SDLP to insist on a photograph that really says nothing would be the equivalent of them jumping onto the ‘Trimble hook’, effectively handing Sinn Fein another few months to use non-decommissioned arms as a bargaining chip. Again, unionism would return to the table in a weaker negotiating position, even if the elections were over and the DUP had made gains in representation.

Some will find it hard to comprehend why the chance to effectively put the IRA out of the business of paramilitarism was not grasped and question the DUP’s real intentions in the talks. The DUP core support however, will see it as Paisley standing up to the Government and Sinn Fein and refusing to accept a “bad deal”.

Either way, with more limited opportunities for involved talks next year, the time to act decisively would seem to be now.

Sometimes a picture can be worth a thousand words, but if those words are cloaked in the ambiguity that led to to previous breakdowns in trust, they won’t be worth much.