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Last Updated: Wednesday, 28 September 2005, 17:07 GMT 18:07 UK
Does decommissioning mean peace?
Earlier this week, it was announced that the Provisional IRA had decommissioned all its weapons.

It was a move heralded by the British and Irish governments.

But as the head of the arms decommissioning body, General John de Chastelain, reassured Northern Ireland the arms had been put beyond use, the reaction from its people appeared to be muted.

We asked six commentators what impact - if any at all - they thought the breakthrough would have on peace in the province. Click on the links below to find out what they said.

Duncan Morrow, head of the Northern Ireland Community Relations Council

Brendan Duddy, businessman from Derry

Gary McConville, director of the Falls Road Community Centre

Robin Wilson, director of Democratic Dialogue, Belfast

William Frazer, director of Families Acting for Innocent Relatives

David Stevens, leader of the Corrymeela community

Peter McEvoy, Newry businessman

Very Rev. Dr. Ken Newell, Fitzroy Presbyterian Church, Belfast

Duncan Morrow, head of the Northern Ireland Community Relations Council

Decommissioning weapons should build confidence and trust in a peace process. Even for Unionists, its key value lay in providing evidence to prove a deeper question: is the war over?

By decommissioning its weapons under international and inter-denominational gaze, that is exactly the message which republicans have given to Irish nationalists, to the British and Irish governments and to the international community.

No matter how many weapons are still in circulation, returning to violence would end any prospect that the word of the republican leadership could be believed again. So this is real, historic change.

Within Northern Ireland, however, the truth is that even decommissioning has not yet resolved the trust problem. It was never difficult to create suspicion among Unionists about Irish republicanism, but the 11 years that it has taken to get from a complete end to violence to a permanent end have generated new reasons for mistrust.

And, of course, that very mistrust in its turn confirms many Nationalists in the view that Unionists are terminally incapable of making peace in Ireland.

Decommissioning therefore changes everything and it changes nothing. All of the big confidence-building measures have now happened. All eyes are now on Unionism and the DUP in particular.

But reconciliation is not an event. If decommissioning took a long time, and trust is taking even longer, maybe the main lesson to be learned is humility about how long it takes to get from communal hatred to sustainable peace.

The vision of a shared future is more alive than it was before decommissioning, but nobody is under any illusions that we have yet arrived.

Brendan Duddy, businessman from Derry

The announcement by General John de Chastelain of the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning that the Provisional IRA had put beyond use a massive arsenal of weapons, showed that, in keeping with Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams' request on 28 July 2005, they had completed their decommissioning

This included hundreds of automatic rifles, rocket launchers, heavy duty machine guns, semtex explosives and hundreds of other assorted weaponry and thousands of rounds of ammunition.

From a nationalist republican viewpoint this is a momentous moment. From a unionist perspective Dr Ian Paisley, the leader of the largest unionist party the DUP, sees deception, betrayal and a sell-out on the part of Prime Minister Blair and Taoiseach Bertie Ahern.

The DUP unionists do not believe General de Chastelain and they most certainly do not accept that the Provisional IRA have decommissioned all their weapons and have made it very clear, immediately after the announcement by the general that they will have no truck with Mr Adams and Mr McGuinness in any immediate devolved government in Northern Ireland and they certainly will not be sharing a seat in the Northern Ireland assembly with them in the near future.

For those of us who have been engaged in the peace process for a long, long time we will be more optimistic than pessimistic at today's announcement.

Northern Ireland is firmly on the road to peace if for no other reason than that after 9/11 and the London train bombings, there is simply no tolerance of armed conflict within western democracies.

Gary McConville, Director of the Falls Road Community Centre

We have heard the words before, "historic, unprecedented etc" but if ever those words were applicable, it surely is today.

The announcement from the IICD that they are satisfied that the Irish Republican Army has disarmed, while expected, is nevertheless historic and unprecedented.

In July, the IRA announced its intention. It said that it was prepared to adapt purely political means to achieve its end.

Today they have backed that up.

No-one should underestimate the uneasiness which this will cause within Republicanism but it also shows a confidence and maturity that Republicans believe they can achieve their goal of a 32 County Republic by purely peaceful means. This frightens the life out of Unionism and is the real reason for their begrudgery about what has happened.

Do the leaders of Unionism believe that the IRA has disarmed? The truth is that they do not care.

They have known for a long time that Republican intentions were peaceful. It is difficult to understand why anyone, least of all Unionists, would not welcome IRA disarmament. It is also difficult to understand how the DUP could work out their position before the announcement was even made.

In recent times the DUP have painstakingly talked up the feeling of alienation within the Unionist community. Today they have adapted a position which alienates them from the British and Irish governments, Church officials, an internationally constituted body and considerable local and international opinion.

I believe the unionist community should seriously question where their political leaders are taking them.

So where to from here? I believe that today's announcement will be uncomfortable, to say the least, for Republicans.

But I also believe that Republicanism has bought into a strategy which can make the vision of their goals a reality. There is a dynamic within Republicanism to get about the job of achieving their objectives and creating change.

The opposite is the case within the leadership of Unionism. The particular strength of this leadership is its opposition to armed Republicanism. Remove that and they become devoid of ideas. That cannot be good for the Unionist cause. The Unionist people deserve better.

William Frazer, director of Families Acting for Innocent Relatives

I personally am disappointed regarding the joy expressed over this decommissioning, from people who so easily forget the evil side of the IRA.

I, and the community I represent, have no confidence in this statement from General de Chastelain.

The lack of transparency still means we are living in the shadow of fear of attack, which is just as bad as attack itself.

As those who suffered most during the conflict we want peace more than anyone, yet it must be genuine and sustained peace.

The IRA have proven time and time again that they will play peace when they are getting their way, but return to violence when they don't.

We ask the government what happens when the concessions to the IRA stop? The London Docklands Bombing was proof of that.

We were promised that the guns would go away years ago and have had to fight tooth and nail to get to this point, flawed as it is.

The whole process has not been transparent so I cannot accept that all weapons are gone, indeed Republicans have done nothing in our area to reassure people like ourselves that they will never again take up the right to kill in the name of a United Ireland.

People forget the IRA have enough money to restock their entire arsenal if they so desire. We have said from day one that it is more important to decommission the terrorist mindset as well as the guns.

David Stevens, leader of the Corrymeela community

IRA decommissioning is of profound practical and symbolic significance.

It would have been better that it happened years ago. The stretching out of this issue helped to destroy David Trimble and the Ulster Unionist Party, and it has exacerbated Unionist suspicions of the Republican movement.

So, decommissioning now is a matter of two cheers not three.

IRA decommissioning is, hopefully, the end of something; it represents an implicit recognition of the futility of violence which has meant over 3,000 deaths. Therefore, it is appropriate to remember the victims of the violence, while we hail this step.

Nevertheless we must look forward. This means making politics work in Northern Ireland (there is also the little matter of loyalist decommissioning).

Making politics work means focusing on a shared future in Northern Ireland. It means the relationships are central, not being winners and losers.

Over the period of the ceasefires we have had less violence, but more social segregation and more peace walls. The conflict mutated into cultural wars, fights about the meaning of the past (who were the real victims, etc) and struggles over parades. We moved from a half-war to a half-peace, but there was still no reconciliation.

The challenge of reconciliation is now the central one for Northern Irish society, and it will be a 30 to 40 year task, for it means changing the patterns of relating between the two main communities.

This task is not only for politicians but for the whole of civil society, churches, trade unions, voluntary organisations and so on.

The challenge of moving forward also means accepting responsibility for making society work. It will mean politicians (and others) ceasing to blame the British government (or other people).

It will mean Sinn Fein accepting responsibility for policing. It will mean the creation of a more enterprising economy and stopping the duplication of services between the two main communities.

So, the decommissioning of weapons is a start; next step the decommissioning of mindsets on everyone's part. To change the metaphor we are simply in the foothills, the real climbing starts now.

Peter McEvoy, businessman from Newry

Decommissioning is without doubt the biggest event in my lifetime as a nationalist.

Since the formation of the IRA about 100 years ago IRA weapons have been in use in almost every decade.

Now for the first time they are not only silenced but totally unusable. That has got to be a momentous happening.

Unionists have asked for this since the 1994 ceasefire, some have genuinely wanted it but more have used it as a roadblock to a permanent settlement of what is known in Britain as the Irish Question.

Nationalists have long suspected that extreme Unionism where views are normally expressed by the DUP never really wanted this day to dawn because they needed an enemy and a fully-armed IRA provided this.

It gave them a reason for their political stance and many times the IRA supplied the oxygen which allowed the DUP to breathe and promote their brand of virulent right-wing politics as amplified on many occasions by Ian Paisley.

Be that as it may, we are where we are and everyone, Catholics, Protestants and the Dissenters should grab this unique opportunity and go forward to a peaceful Northern Ireland.

If Unionists continue to look this "gift horse" in the mouth and insist on counting its teeth and they maintain a doubting of the word, regardless of cast iron assurances from honourable witnesses to the final act of decommissioning by the IRA, then Nationalists will be sure that their (Unionist) demand has been a cynical bluff from the beginning.

Very Rev. Dr. Ken Newell, Fitzroy Presbyterian Church, Belfast, and former Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland

Frozen mantras make me despair.

They recalled the gloomy assessment of a 16th century English civil servant: "The war of Ireland shall never end unless God set it in men's hearts to find some new remedy that never was found before."

Through my friends Frs Gerry Reynolds and Alex Reid of Clonard I was catapulted in 1990 into prolonged dialogue with senior republican and loyalist figures within and beyond Belfast.

After 18 months of challenging exchanges the climate inside the rooms where we met was like a typical winter's day - overcast and depressing. "No end of IRA violence until the Brits declare their intention to withdraw!", "No let-up against republicans until they declare a ceasefire!"

Looking back I detect a steady improvement in our political climate. In 1992 I discovered that prominent figures in republicanism and loyalism were committed to conflict resolution; in 1994 the IRA and the Combined Loyalist Military Command declared their ceasefires; in 1998 the Good Friday Agreement was signed; in 1999 Sinn Fein entered Stormont, and on 26 September, General Chastelain announced that 'the IRA had destroyed all its arms'.

The Rev Harold Good and Fr Alex Reid, seasoned campaigners for non-violent politics, oversaw the monumental event. Their towering integrity added to the professional precision of the job undertaken by the arms decommissioning body.

While legitimate questions remain, the advent of 2006 will, please God, usher in a springtime of hope: hope that republican criminal activity is over, that Loyalist paramilitaries espouse the same path of disarmament, and that our elected politicians will give courageous leadership by forming a devolved and socially transforming power-sharing executive.

That's why I'm still praying for the day when all our frozen mantras will thaw out and flow into a river of hope for this country that I love.

Robin Wilson, director of Democratic Dialogue, Belfast

It is one of the ironies about the IRA's decommissioning exercise that damaging assessments of the organisation confirm the seriousness of the move.

Contrary to much media representation of Sinn Féin as the 'doves' bringing the 'hawks' of the IRA 'in from the cold', the republican movement as a whole operates as a 'democratic-centralist' organisation, akin to the former Stalinist parties in central and eastern Europe.

Indeed, at one party conference in the 1980s, Sinn Féin bizarrely reversed its support for the Solidarity movement in Poland to back the martial-law regime.

Similarly, the IRA's recent association with the FARC guerrillas in Colombia shows how out of step it is with the democratic Latin American left, which shed the brutal romanticism of 'armed struggle' decades ago.

Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness run the republican movement, in both its guises, with absolute authority. John Kelly, a former Sinn Féin member of the currently defunct Northern Ireland assembly, resigned last year what he described as 'a control dictatorship'.

It is ironically for just this reason that we know the IRA's decommissioning has been, as far as anyone can know, complete. The orders have gone out and the volunteers have delivered, down to loose supplies of individual bullets.

But it is also for this very reason that the IRA move does not herald the re-establishment of power-sharing devolution any time soon.

And this is not only because the Democratic Unionist Party is deeply imbued with Protestant sectarianism - though that is reason enough.

It is also because the totalitarian character of Sinn Féin continues to make it, for the moment, incompatible with democratic politics.

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