not too little.. but much too late

The Irish Times carries Ed Moloney’s view of the final act of decommissioning by the Provisional Movement[subs req], as announced yesterday by John de Chastelain, the retired Canadian general, who, when first appointed, “had so many strikes against him from an Irish nationalist viewpoint that Dublin and the Provos recruited Bill Clinton’s assistance in trying to get him replaced.”As Ed Moloney reminds us, all has changed –

Ten years on the Provos and the Irish Government have nothing but praise for de Chastelain and those early doubts about his impartiality, when recalled nowadays, are met with uncomprehending glares. Instead it is the unionists who rage on about the former Canadian soldier.

He argues that de Chastelain’s acceptance of the Provisional Movement’s demand for secrecy is, partly, behind the change in approval –

The conventional explanation for this is that the way IRA decommissioning was conceived, the fact that it would be voluntary, carried out by the IRA itself, although verified independently and covered in a blanket of silence, was done specifically to avoid any impression that the IRA had been defeated and humiliated.

but that this is only part of the story –

The rest of the explanation lies in the fact that the secrecy allowed the IRA leadership to claim to its rank-and-file that decommissioning either hadn’t happened or was of less significance than was being claimed.

It was the perfect example of constructive ambiguity in practice, of the grease being applied to the wheels of the peace process.

This application of constructive ambiguity benefited some, but not others –

And in the process the IRA leadership slowly got its membership used to the idea that weapons could be decommissioned without the sky falling in.

In fact they were able to demonstrate that disarming actually brought gains and for that they were indebted to the unionist community whose already ingrained scepticism about the IRA’s bona fides was enhanced and inflated by the secrecy surrounding the process.

All this took its toll on David Trimble’s ability to captain the unionist ship through the choppy peace process waters.

His response – the only possible response his friends say – was to place obstacles in the way of Sinn Féin joining the power-sharing government until the IRA delivered and so the Belfast Agreement lurched from one crisis or suspension to another.

Eventually Trimble’s ship was scuppered; Ian Paisley is the new skipper and the prospects that the Belfast Agreement will ever be revived must be dimmer.

But the decommissioning itself is devalued as a result –

The secrecy surrounding decommissioning which Gen de Chastelain sanctioned may have been meant to make the ordeal of disarming easier for Sinn Féin and the IRA to bear but it had consequences which one doubts the general could ever have foreseen or intended.

No-one can seriously doubt that massive IRA decommissioning has taken place and that Gen de Chastelain and his witnesses were telling the truth yesterday, albeit a sadly incomplete truth, about what they saw.

Where the doubt exists now is over the worth of the exercise. The IRA’s weapons proved to be immensely valuable chips in Sinn Féin’s hands throughout the vexed years of negotiations and if they have now been finally surrendered it can only be because they have outlived their worth in the eyes of the Provo leadership and been replaced by other, more potent tokens such as the IRA itself, the persistent curse of criminality and the prospect of the Provos in the police force.

What Gen de Chastelain delivered yesterday was definitely not too little but it was almost certainly too late.