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Good news from Ireland

The decision by the Irish Republican Army to start decommissioning arms is a historic step forward. But it does not mean that everything will be plain sailing nor that, sadly, there will be no more violence. However, it does mean that the political agenda has changed.

A young man and child climb onto a railing in north Belfast, in front of a large Loyalist mural painted on the side of a building.

AMID all the depressing events in Afghanistan and its neighbours and in Israel, Northern Ireland for once provided some genuinely good news. The decision by the Irish Republican Army to start the process of decommissioning arms — and confirmation from General de Chastelain, the Canadian who heads the decommissioning organisation, that he and his colleagues were satisfied with what had been done — was by any standards a dramatic step forward in this long troubled province.

On September 2 in my "Cambridge Letter", I suggested that there were reasons for optimism, partly because the Northern Ireland politicians were increasingly out on a limb. That was before the New York and Washington attacks on September 11. The effect that they had on the situation was crucial. It became crystal clear to the Sinn Fein leadership that any continuing addiction to violence as the route to achieving their political aims would result in the loss of the support from the United States that has funded and encouraged the republican movement. In the wake of September 11, and of the earlier embarrassing incident in which two IRA veterans were discovered giving technical help to Farc guerrillas in Colombia, U.S. officials underlined the reality of the new situation. The result: the announcement by the IRA, after a carefully staged "prediction" by Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein president, which was welcomed by the British and Irish Governments and by David Trimble, the Unionist leader.

It was followed immediately by the dismantling of some British military installations used to monitor IRA activity. The Northern Ireland executive — the devolved Government — should be able to continue with Nationalists and Unionists serving in it.

The political commentators agree that this is a genuinely historic step forward, which changes fundamentally the political landscape. It does not mean that everything from now on will be plain sailing. Nor does it mean, sadly, that there will be no more violence.

Some terrorists on both sides of the religious and political divide — Nationalist Catholics and Unionist Protestants — will continue to kill. Indeed, as I write there is news of attacks by Protestants.

It does mean that the political agenda has changed. As the Financial Times put it, the symbolic decommissioning gesture would not stop sectarian violence but it marked "the formal end of the armed struggle". The Nationalists have committed themselves henceforth to pursuing their political aims politically. One does not have to be cynical to recognise that there are both positive and negative reasons for this: the positive include the fact that demography is on their side as the nationalist population increases; the negative include the fact that violence was increasingly alienating potential friends.

Nevertheless, the change is of huge importance. Comments in two widely differing newspapers underline this. The Irish Examiner, in Cork, in the Republic, commented that what was now required was real and actual decommissioning of weapons by all paramilitaries, remarking that only when the men of violence emerge from the shadows will peace be copper-fastened. A writer in the Belfast Telegraph, in Northern Ireland, noted that Gerry Adams had provided a way out, and in the long term many deaths have probably bee avoided. ``It is time to say: `Well done, Gerry'".

Exchanging the bullet for the ballot box must always be welcomed, but it is often a far from comfortable process. Political disagreements are not always settled by compromise. When one side wins a point, the other side loses, and of course vice versa. In Northern Ireland, years of violent conflict have produced a situation in which losing a point has too often meant taking revenge with a gun, and we must expect that to some extent to continue. This is not because the IRA's decision and the response of the other main politicians to it are false. Rather, it is because the habit of terrorism and violence is not easily cured. People who have grown up believing that violence is a realistic and acceptable way of asserting belief do not change overnight.

History shows, however, that it is necessary to live with this. Guerrillas and freedom fighters, in many former colonial territories, have been reluctant to give up their fighting when the ``just cause'' has been achieved, and they have often become a major embarrassment to the Government that they fought to install. The political leaders of Northern Ireland will need cool heads. They will need to use the opportunity now before them constructively, and not be deflected by the inevitable disappointments that will come when hardliners reject the peaceful route.

The author is an Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College, Cambridge. E-mail him at

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