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Tuesday, March 30, 1999 Published at 17:58 GMT 18:58 UK

John de Chastelain: Arms and the man

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Before being asked to assist Senator George Mitchell in the negotiations that were to lead to the Good Friday agreement, General John de Chastelain's only experience of Northern Ireland had been a stopover on a childhood visit to the Irish Republic.

It is a measure of the organisational and personal skills that mark the career of this soldier turned diplomat that he was able to grasp so early on the complexities of the situation in which he found himself.

And, given his background, it is even more surprising that he has won the trust of both sides in the peace talks.

Although Canadian, the chairman of the International Commission on Decommissioning is British by upbringing.

Both his parents spied for the British Army in World War II, and he spent a year at the British Army Staff College.

The son of a Scottish oil engineer and an American-born mother, he was born in Romania, educated in Fettes, Edinburgh, and followed his parents to Canada when he was 18.

Fast rise

His military career began almost by accident - he was offered a place at Oxford, but on emigrating chose the Canadian Royal Military College instead.

His ability was spotted early on and he rose quickly through the ranks, serving in Germany and Cyprus.

The Search for Peace
He was appointed Canada's ambassador to the US in 1993 - a post usually reserved for high-ranking diplomats - and a year later Chief of Defence Staff.

It was the diplomatic and negotiating skills he displayed as a soldier, as much as anything, that brought General de Chastelain to the attention of George Mitchell and those heading up the peace process.

He has first hand experience of handling conflict based on opposing tradition.

[ image: The IRA has been asked to hand over its arms caches]
The IRA has been asked to hand over its arms caches
He played a key role in the OKA Crisis; a two month stand-off between Mohawk Indians and the Canadian army and police over attempts to turn Mohawk burial lands into a recreational area.

The General was involved in the negotiations with the Mohawks which resolved the dispute.

As part of the agreement, some Mohawk weapons were decommissioned.

His career has not been without its moments of controversy.


An inquiry into the torture and death of a Somali teenager at the hands of members of the Canadian Airborne Regiment said he "failed as a commander" as defence chief when the troops were sent on their disastrous 1992 peace-keeping mission.

When the report was released, he was in Northern Ireland where, within a few months of joining the decommissioning commission in December, 1995, he became chief negotiator George Mitchell's right-hand man in the peace negotiations.

An optimist, de Chastelain believes that the 22 May, 2000 deadline for complete paramilitary disarmament will be met.

Up to the task

If it is to be, much rests on the hyperactive 61-year-old organisational and negotiating skills.

But those who know him believe that he is up to the task ahead.

He once served with the former head of UN peacekeeping in Bosnia - fellow Canadian Major General Lewis Mackenzie, who was himself once asked to take on the decommissioning role.

The Major General describes General de Chastelain as "politically sensitive" and said he gets better the more important the role he takes on.

If the decommissioning impasse is to be broken, he will need to be.

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In this section

David Trimble: More enemies than friends

John Hume: Midwife to the peace process

Mo Mowlam: London's eternal optimist

Gerry Adams: Between war and peace

Ian Paisley: Ulster's No man

John de Chastelain: Arms and the man

Mallon: Calling a spade a spade

David Ervine: Leaving the past behind