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Thursday, 8 March, 2001, 19:53 GMT
The peace process 1998 - 2001

While Northern Ireland's parties signed the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, its implementation has proved just as difficult as its drafting.


BACKGROUND

Whether or not the 1998 Good Friday Agreement leads to lasting peace in Northern Ireland, it has certainly led to a massive drop in deaths and violence. As a contrast to the current level of violence, the eight years leading up to the signing of the historic political deal saw more than 500 people lose their lives.

But the process remains far from complete. Sectarian divisions haven't suddenly disappeared - most publicly seen in the spate of loyalist attacks on Catholic families in Larne, Co Antrim.

And the agreement's supporters fear that the longer the parties fail to settle the crucial political issues, the more chance there will be for violence to fill the vacuum as it did for the previous three decades.


GOOD FRIDAY AGREEMENT

The Good Friday Agreement is the political cornerstone of the search for peace.

Pro-agreement unionists saw the deal as delivering devolved government, the abolition of the controversial Anglo-Irish Agreement and an end to paramilitary violence.

Belfast Agreement: What's implemented?
NI Assembly
Paramilitary releases
Cross-border bodies
Changes to Irish constitution
Some security changes
Nationalists regarded the deal as giving their community an equal say in the running of Northern Ireland and addressing the wider issues of equality and freedom which were the roots of the slide into violence in the 1960s.

Republicans have sold the deal to their constituency as delivering the equality agenda and as a staging post towards the final goal of dismantling the British state.

Whether or not the deal strengthened the union with Great Britain or brought a single Irish state closer to realisation, depends on your standpoint.


PROGRESS OF THE AGREEMENT

But the implementation of the deal has proved as complicated as its drafting - and has stumbled into crisis on more than one occasion.

Belfast Agreement: Continuing or unresolved
Policing reform
Decommissioning
Judicial reforms
Full demilitarisation
The UUP's bottom line is that there has to be decommissioning of paramilitary weaponry - it argues that, ultimately, it cannot work with people who represent armed terrorists.

Sinn Fein has always maintained that the best chance for IRA decommissioning is within the context of full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement - most importantly for them on the part of the British government.

The party's overriding position is that it wants to see "all guns out of Irish politics," something that includes the removal of the British army and fundamental reform of the Royal Ulster Constabulary.

But it rejects the unionist view that the agreement obliges paramilitaries to disarm, saying that it is the responsibility of all parties to create a climate in which the causes of conflict are removed.

By 15 July 1999, the official date for the start of the assembly's work, there had been no deal on decommissioning and the Ulster Unionists boycotted the inaugural meeting.

But despite fears that the entire deal could collapse, a review led to a behind-the-scenes deal being hammered out.

On 27 November 1999, David Trimble secured the backing of his party to enter the assembly without prior decommissioning.

The IRA subsequently announced that it had appointed a representative to the de decommissioning body headed by the Canadian general, John de Chastelain.

But Mr Trimble had won his party's backing on condition of actual decommissioning taking place.

In February 2000 Secretary of State Peter Mandelson suspended devolution to prevent the UUP collapsing the institutions because of a lack of movement by the IRA.


NEW HOPE

By the late spring, further negotiations persuaded Mr Trimble of the case of returning to the executive and he secured his party's support, albeit with a reduced majority.


The full implementation will provide a political context ... with the potential to remove the causes of conflict ... In that context, the IRA leadership will initiate a process that will completely and verifiably put IRA arms beyond use.

IRA statement, 6 May 2000
The move prompted the IRA's historic statement of 6 May 2000 that it would "initiate a process that will completely and verifiably put arms beyond use" in the context of a "full implementation, on a progressive and irreversible basis" of the agreement.

As a "confidence building measure", the IRA allowed two independent international observers to inspect some of its arms dumps. The inspectors reported that there was a "genuine effort by the IRA to advance the peace process."

However, the clouds remain overhead. Unionists have become increasingly divided over the wisdom of the policy, most evidently seen in the decline in support for Mr Trimble in successive meetings of the party's ruling council.

At the same time, nationalists warn that the planned reforms of the Royal Ulster Constabulary depart substantially from independent recommendations - and in doing so risk alienating the Catholic community.

In October, the Ulster Unionist's no-camp attempted to force the decommissioning issue after the party lost the South Antrim by-election to an anti-agreement Democratic Unionist candidate.

That bid failed, but only after Mr Trimble pledged to ban Sinn Fein ministers from attending north-south ministerial meetings.

Although the High Court ruled the ban unlawful, the first minister retains the power to nominate whoever he wishes to committees - meaning that de facto sanctions remain in place.


A FINAL DEAL?

In February, reports suggested that the parties were close to a final all-embracing deal.

This was thought to be a carefully planned sequence which would include unionists lifting the ban on SF, the British government announcing further police reforms and scaling down of the military and the IRA beginning to dispose of weapons.

While those reports came to nought, the IRA did issue a new statement as Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern chaired a new round of talks on 8 March.

While the statement reiterated the stance the IRA set out in May 2000, it also announced that it would be re-engaging with Gen de Chastelain's commission.


GENERAL ELECTION PRESSURE

However, the impending general election has brought into sharp relief the problems that all the parties face.

For David Trimble, the question is whether he may have stretched his own constituency too far in the face of the Democratic Unionist challenge laid down at the South Antrim by-election victory.

As Prime Minister Tony Blair called the General Election in London, Mr Trimble announced that he would resign as First Minister if the IRA had not begun decommissioning - in whatever form satisfied the international inspectors - by July.

While nationalists said that deadlines would end in dead ends, the move was widely seen as a pre-emptive electoral strike against the Democratic Unionist Party, rather than just an attack on republicans.

That said, it is uncertain whether the Ulster Unionist's ruling council will continue to allow its three ministers to continue in government with Sinn Fein without decommissioning of some sort by armed groups.

The SDLP, still the largest nationalist group, has yet to commit to the police reforms and it fears a strong electoral challenge from Sinn Fein.

Its leader John Hume has long regarded policing as the most important issue, saying on decommissioning: "You can hand over a gun away on Monday, only to buy another one on Tuesday."

For Sinn Fein itself, there are manifest problems within its own community - most recently underlined by the bombing of the BBC's Television Centre in London by dissident republicans, thought to be the Real IRA.

Sinn Fein's two leading figures, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, have sought to prove that republicans can achieve their goals through politics.

However, the fear remains that the hand of dissident republicans could be strengthened by a failure to prove that politics can work.

While all sides realise that the dissidents are intent on wrecking the agreement, this small group's actions make it even harder for unionists to compromise with the republicans who say they are committed to the peace process but have yet to deliver "product".

Writing after the BBC bombing, the respected journalist Peter Taylor who had unprecedented access to republican paramilitaries in the making of his BBC series, Provos, said: "The Real IRA are looking over Sinn Fein's shoulder as Ian Paisley and the DUP are looking over David Trimble's".

Whether the parties want it or not, the general election has brought the problems they all face into sharp relief - and its result could come to be seen as a second referendum on the Good Friday Agreement.

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