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Last Updated: Monday, 26 September 2005, 19:11 GMT 20:11 UK
Profile: Gen John de Chastelain
General John de Chastelain saying IRA decommissioning is complete
De Chastelain had a Canadian military career
General John de Chastelain's only experience of Northern Ireland before 1995 had been a stopover on a childhood visit to the Irish Republic.

Then he found himself in the middle of one of the most complicated conflicts in the world when he agreed to come on board Senator George Mitchell's team trying to find a way towards an agreement.

Since then, he has gone on to head the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning.

While it may not have a snappy name, for many people in Northern Ireland its job is the most important of all - to remove the gun from Northern Ireland.

Although Canadian, Gen John de Chastelain is British by upbringing.

Army career

The son of a Scottish oil engineer and an American-born mother, he was born in Romania and educated in Fettes, Edinburgh.

He followed his parents to Canada when he was 18 and when faced with a choice between Oxford University and the Canadian Royal Military College, he chose the latter.

In the military, he rose quickly through the ranks, serving in Germany and Cyprus.

In 1990, he played a key role in the Oka Crisis, a two-month stand-off between Mohawk Indians and the Canadian army, over attempts to turn Mohawk burial lands into a recreational area.

Mohawk talks

Gen de Chastelain supervised the negotiations with the Mohawks which resolved the dispute and led to a solution including the decommissioning of some Mohawk weapons.

He was rewarded in 1993 when he was appointed Canada's ambassador to the United States, a post usually reserved for high-ranking diplomats. A year later he was made Chief of Defence Staff.

But his career has not been without its moments of controversy.

IRA weapons
The process puts weapons beyond use

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.

Nevertheless, the governments' decision to choose him as the head of the decommissioning body was praised and when he took up the post he appeared optimistic.

His July 1999 report on the prospect of decommissioning concluded that it was the commission's "considered view" that paramilitary decommissioning would meet the May 2000 deadline.

That deadline was missed and the pessimism among unionists in Northern Ireland began to set in.

While there was talk of on-going negotiations with the loyalists, nothing came of that strand of the process, with the General and everyone else seeing no possibility of those groups decommissioning arms if the IRA did not move first.

Key questions

Throughout all of the process, Gen de Chastelain's role came down to asking three questions of all the paramilitary groups on ceasefire:

  • Are they prepared to decommission weapons?
  • How would they be prepared to decommission weapons?
  • When would that decommissioning take place?

    A breakthrough for the general's seemingly unending patience came in May 2000.

    Just as rumours began that he would soon be prepared to shut up the shop and head home, the IRA came to him with an offer as part of a complicated sequence of movements involving the other parties.

    They answered the first of the three questions positively - there would be circumstances in which the IRA would be prepared to decommission weapons.

    End to campaign

    At the same time, the paramilitaries allowed independent international inspectors to carry out the first of three visits to a number of arms dumps as part of a process that could lead to their arms being put "completely and verifiably beyond use".

    Those two inspectors, Maarti Ahtisaari and Cyril Ramaphosa, reported that they had put measures in place - measures unknown - to make sure that the arms could not be used without their knowledge.

    In July 2005, the IRA announced an end to its armed campaign, ending more than 30 years of violence.

    This decommissioning announcement is the follow-up to that statement.

    Since the beginning of September 2005, General de Chastelain, Andrew Sens and Tauno Nieminen - fellow commissioners - have been in Ireland overseeing the latest round of decommissioning.

    There have also been new independent church witnesses to the process - the priest Father Alex Reid and the former President of the Methodist Church, the Reverend Harold Good.

    It looks likely the commissioners' focus will switch next to loyalist decommissioning.

    Here, the main organisations, the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Ulster Defence Association have yet to decommission a single weapon.


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