"Decommissioning Reconsidered", Newsletter Article, September 30th, 2005

The idea of decommissioning was not a unionist invention. It first surfaced on 15 December 1993, when the Downing Street Declaration was published. Irish Foreign Minister Dick Spring then said he would be talking to republicans about handing in their guns. He had a expectation of success for during earlier talks with the Irish Government Martin McGuinness is said to have commented, “Sure I know we’ll have to banjax the guns”. It was a perfectly reasonable requirement for if paramilitaries are genuine about giving up terrorism then they ought to be willing to give up the tools of terrorism.

There were critics even then who said what is the point of decommission when they could easily go out tomorrow and get some more. But decommissioning was never an end in itself. The object was being committed to exclusively peaceful and democratic means. Decommissioning was merely evidence of such a commitment. And not the only evidence for were other ways of showing a commitment to peace and democracy.

All this was very much in my mind in September 1995 when I became leader of the Ulster Unionist Party. Then, a year after the IRA ceasefire, the question was would we enter talks with republicans and we were getting boxed into a response solely in terms of decommissioning. Instinctively I felt that we needed room for manoeuvre. That is why in my press conference the day after becoming leader, I tried to focus on the principle of exclusively peaceful and democratic means, stated clearly in the Declaration. I said it could be proved in a variety of ways - republicans could say clearly that the ceasefires were permanent, that their so-called “war” was over, they could end so-called punishment beatings, and so on.

To my chagrin when I had my first meeting as leader with Prime Minister John Major soon after, he opened the meeting by saying I was letting the side down: that I was weakening the government’s position on decommissioning!

At that time Major wanted a beginning to decommissioning. Of course, in the Agreement we set the requirement for the completion of decommissioning. But we all knew that with the best will in the world there would be difficulties in being sure of that. Some of those difficulties were mentioned be General de Chastelain on Monday. He was asked whether the amount decommissioned corresponded exactly with the inventory he was given by the governments. He pointed out that much of the inventory was very old, and continued, “much of it came 20 years ago. Some of it has gone to paramilitary groups that have broken away … some of it may have been lost in terms of an individual who was given responsibility for it having died and the location never having been found.”

If on 22 May 2000, the target date in the Agreement for completion of decommissioning, there had been substantial compliance with that, we would have very pleased.

Was what happened last week substantially complete decommissioning? On the evidence of the statements of the Commissioners and clergymen who witnessed the events, the answer must be yes. And will be confirmed when the inventory they took during the decommissioning is published. Yes, it would be a good idea if that inventory was published now. Yes, I think de Chastelain made a mistake when he agreed to keep it confidential until other groups had decommissioned. As I have said before, there is no legal requirement of confidentially attaching to the inventory.

But It is foolish to disbelieve the evidence given by the witnesses. They may have been deceived, but that should not be our problem. Remember, the overriding need is being committed to exclusively peaceful and democratic means. Decommissioning is necessary, but not sufficient, that is why the focus in recent years has been on the completion by paramilitaries of their transition to peace and democracy.

Unionists therefore should not get stuck in a self-defeating argument about last weekend. Instead they should focus on tomorrow’s issues. Has paramilitary activity ended? Has racketeering ended? Are they unequivocally committed to the support of policing? Is the integrity of the police and the criminal justice system being maintained?

If there has been any sleight of hand by republicans this is where it will become apparent. And we now, thanks to Ulster Unionism, have a powerful tool which was not there seven years ago, namely the Independent Monitoring Commission. So let us see what is reported by the IMC next January and in its subsequent regular reports. Let us see if the police are accepted and supported, and let us not see, from any quarter any dilution of the standards on which policing and justice depend, rather let us see them become more effective and society becoming safer and politics cleaner and more transparent.

(September 30th, 2005)

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