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Review of 2001 Monday, 31 December, 2001, 10:15 GMT
Arms breakthrough in NI's year of change
Frightened children are given a police escort to school
IRA decommission weapons but children are traumatised by abuse
By the BBC's Ireland correspondent Denis Murray

The path of true devolution runneth not smooth but the year's politics have bounced about like a tipsy sailor on 7-24 shore leave.

At the heart of the difficulties, as ever, was the vexed question of the decommissioning of paramilitary weapons, although there were other problems, including policing.

The complete lack of any real putting of weaponry beyond use prompted David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist leader, to give six weeks warning that he would resign as first minister of the devolved assembly.

This turned out to be a cunning plan, because he put those who were criticising him from within his own party firmly behind the eight ball - they could only back him.

They haven't gone away, and are still determined to snap at his heels.

The really seismic event of the year - the IRA put a bunker full of weaponry beyond use

Denis Murray
The resignation led to two 24-hour suspensions of the assembly and all its workings by Northern Ireland Secretary John Reid - in each case more time was bought.

Dr Reid had earlier replaced Peter Mandelson - remember him? - with no appreciable changes in the peace process.

IRA decommissioning

Arguably, the crisis precipitated by Trimble prompted the really seismic event of the year - the IRA put a bunker full of weaponry beyond use.

There were many who believed the IRA would never dispose of so much as an empty shell case or an empty Semtex wrapper.

In fact, as one British official remarked, if all they had done was to get rid of a rusty rifle and one bullet, it still would have been hugely significant.

The Sinn Fein President, Gerry Adams, admitted the act of decommissioning had caused a fair bit of difficulty in the republican movement, and that some members had left.

But that act broke the logjam - David Trimble un-resigned himself and his ministers, and devolution got back to work.

It got back to work with a new deputy first minister, who was also the new leader of the nationalist SDLP.

Retiring times

Mark Durkan took over as leader after John Hume stood down. Mr Hume has had plenty of critics over the years, but he leaves a huge political legacy.

Arguably, he invented and mentored the peace process, and is one of the few Irish politicians of his generation to attain genuine world status.

John Hume
John Hume stood down as leader of SDLP
Seamus Mallon, who had been deputy first minister stood down from that too, and as party deputy leader - one of the most popular people in politics here.

There were two elections.

At the Westminster poll, Sinn Fein doubled its number of seats to four and now they have their money and offices from the Mother of Parliaments.

Every seat in the west of the province is now held by a nationalist or republican. Ian Paisley's DUP made gains at the expense of the Ulster Unionists. Both these trends were repeated in elections to local councils.

Continuing sectarianism

Sectarian murders of Catholics by loyalist - Protestant - paramilitaries continued.

The ceasefire of the largest loyalist paramilitary group, the UDA, was declared to be over, and its political party disbanded. Ominous portents?

Street violence, particularly in north Belfast, reached levels that one senior police officer said he had not seen in 20 years.

And one event dominated the world's news for the week before 11 September - the Protestant protests outside Holy Cross Catholic Girls' Primary School in Ardoyne.

The images of five to 11-year-olds going to class under a torrent of sectarian abuse, stones, bottles, bricks, and on two occasions hand grenades, horrified everybody.

RUC officers on the street in Belfast
Reform and a new name for police force
That dispute, partly to do with initiatives taken by the devolved administration, looks to be on the way to at least armistice, if not total resolution.

The Royal Ulster Constabulary became the Police Service of Northern Ireland against the wishes of the unionist community.

But the big event here was the SDLP joining the new oversight Policing Board - the first time nationalists have ever been involved in policing since Northern Ireland was founded in 1921.

The end of the year was dominated by a spectacular row between the police ombudsman and the chief constable.

It was over a report on how the police had handled the investigation into the Omagh bombing of 1998, in which 29 people died.

There's more to come on this row too.

What next?

The next crisis in the politics looks like coming in February/March time. The unionists want to see more decommissioning by the IRA by then to see that it's a process, and not just a one-off gesture.

Sadly, there will be more sectarian attacks, and the threat from republican dissident groups is still there.

The "marching season" will still raise passions, though even that has not been as intense as in previous years.

There will be a general election in the Republic of Ireland, and its currency changes to the euro on New Year's Day.

And finally, if you hear less from me in 2002, then you will know Northern Ireland is on the way to becoming "normal".

See also:

23 Oct 01 | NI Deadlock
Links to more Review of 2001 stories are at the foot of the page.

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