Memorandum submitted by Dr Corinna Hauswedell,
Bonn International Center for Conversion
Following the Committee's request we have decided
to submit a couple of aspects which we hope will fit the goals
and the format of the inquiry as it is laid out.
We want to communicate our views on the requested
topic in a two-folded manner:
The first aspect stems from a study on the Northern
Ireland peace process itself which was conducted by BICC from
2000 to 2003, and may rather fall in the category "to examine
associated issues which arise in the course of the inquiry";
the other aspect tries to facilitate some hints to the experiences
of reconciliation and transitional justice in post-unification
Germany, carried out by other researchers.
The principal intellectual link between the
two aspects may be expressed in the notion that history and its
acknowledgement in the context of any reconciliation process does
matter more than easily accepted by the formerly conflicting parties.
A proposal to include in the course of the inquiry
the issue of arms, decommissioning and the related perceptions
in Northern Ireland as an issue associated to the process of reconciliation.
Obviously, the discussion about reconciliation
in Northern Ireland has not to begin from scratch. During the
last 10 years, numerous, and in parts controversial, efforts have
been undertaken to incorporate the various issues of dealing with
the past in the course of the ongoing peace process. They range
from publications like the `Lost Lives', public efforts of story
telling in the media, statutory and voluntary endeavours of putting
the victims needs into perspective, to the provisions of the Belfast
Agreement for Human Rights and the Reform of Justice, the Saville
Tribunal, and other inquiries, notwithstanding the question whether
Northern Ireland following the example of other post-conflict
societies should have a truth commission established, an issue
which since 2003 has repeatedly and prominently been raised, among
others by the Chief Constable Hugh Orde.
Apart from the discussion which kind of structural
approaches would best meet the needs for reconciliation in a divided
society like Northern Ireland, the matter of contents has become
increasingly important, ie which issues should be covered (and
which should be left out) to address protracted features of mistrust
and grievances on both sides of the divide in the further process
We want to argue in favour of includingbeyond
dealing already with the various consequences of paramilitary
and state violencethe issue of the arms themselves, their
history, patterns of use, perceptions of disarmament and decommissioning
(and non-decommissioning respectively) into a comprehensive approach
of dealing with the past.
What may sound like stirring up the mud at first
glimpse may prove a sober and honest part of recognition and reckoning
useful to leave behind certain mystification and legend building
surrounding the weapons issue, in the future.
Due to constraints in terms of time and space
we can here only outline a few ideas on the proposed matter; a
more in depth proposal may be provided if the Committee decides
to take up the idea.
What are the reasons behind this plea?
For many reasons, the decommissioning of paramilitary
weapons has become the major stumbling block of the Northern Irish
peace process for the last decade, and the complex set of "hardware"
and "software" issues related to this stumbling block
are still in the process of being unwrapped.
During our studies in the framework of a major
research titled International and Domestic Aspects of Governance
in Post-Conflict SocietiesA Case Study of the Northern
Ireland Peace Process and the Role of Demilitarisation, which
from 2000-03 was funded by the Volkswagen Foundation and kindly
supported by various co-operation partners in Northern Ireland
our emphasis was laid on the question why the issue of decommissioning
gained the enormous momentum it did during the course of the peace
At the core of our findings is the notion that
the weapons, for a variety of historical and actual reasons, gained
a highly symbolic significance and value for all involved in the
conflict which went far beyond the military potential of the arms.
Any genuine approach to reconciliation will have to take this
complexity of symbolism related to the arms into account. By unveiling
the irrational and rational aspects of using arms in a particular
conflict, a new way of understandingnot necessarily forgivingmay
set free the minds for a future of dealing with conflict by non-violent
You may find a summary of our conclusions helpful
to explain the suggested approach in more detail.
1. GUNS, SYMBOLISM
In years to come, as the history of the Northern
Irish peace process is further researched, commentators will likely
marvel at the relative speed with which agreement was reached
on constitutional issues such as the establishment of a power
sharing government and the setting up of cross border bodies.
For decades, the constitutional question had been presented as
being not merely thorny, but practically intractable. The thought
of Unionists and Republicans sharing the government of Northern
Ireland, indeed even the notion of Sinn Fein being involved in
a "partitionist"" Assembly, would have seemed the
stuff of fantasy a decade ago.
The ease with which some of the parties slipped
into the constitutional clothes of the new political structures
contrasts sharply with their handling of the question of disarmament.
Decommissioning dogged the process from the outset, creating numerous
blockages, cul-de-sacs and governmental spats. Decommissioning
was the quicksand in which the pro-Agreement Unionist leadership
frequently began to disappear, a nagging irritant for the Republican
grassroots, and a useful stick with which anti-Agreement Unionists
beat their counterparts.
Why the Unionist insistence on decommissioning
already silent weapons? Why the Republican reluctance to decommission
even a meagre amount of material for so many years? Guns have
had a profound importance for Unionists and Republicans, far beyond
their military potential. The deeply symbolic and psychological
significance of guns in Northern Irish society ensured that any
concerted effort to remove them from the province would also require
the decommissioning of the mindsets of the populace on both sides
of the sectarian divide.
Decommissioned weaponry was valuable for Ulster
Unionists in that it provided a foundation upon which to anchor
both their place in negotiations and their subsequent position
in government. It would provide a very concrete symbol of Republican
intentions to move beyond armed struggle, and prevent Ulster Unionists
from being undermined by the continuous buffeting of those within
their constituency opposed to any rapprochement with Republicanism.
The fact that no disarmament occurred during the peace negotiations
served to further inflate the importance of the issue when it
came to actually sitting in government with Sinn Fein. The goal
of decommissioning was held to be critical within pro-Agreement
Unionism as it would serve to allay fears that Sinn Fein's commitment
to peace might only be tactical; without this assurance, the compromise
made in the Belfast Agreement would have been perceived as a sign
of fundamental weakness, leading only to future political instability.
Weaponry also had a great symbolic importance
for Republicans through the trials and tribulations of the peace
process. The symbolic value of munitions ensured that they would
hang on to their weaponry even as chunks of traditional Republican
ideology were hollowed out. Whilst the Belfast Agreement gave
Sinn Fein access to the levers of power, it also involved an end
to abstentionism, and with it, an outright, meaningful rejection
of British rule in Ireland. It was, in traditional Republican
terms, a "partitionist" settlement which enshrined the
principle of consent, ended the Republic of Ireland's constitutional
claim to the North, and provided for cross-border bodies which,
while not being flimsy, were far from being engines of Irish re-unification.
These major ideological concessions required a counter-balance.
Republican reluctance to decommissioning underwrote and insulated
the new political strategy within the grass roots. The struggle
was not being sold out or de-legitimised, as its historical cutting
edge would be sheathed but intact. In this way, the symbolic importance
of retaining weaponry served as political ballast, its purpose
being to steady the Republican movement while it jettisoned much
of its traditional ideology.
One thing Ulster Unionists and Sinn Fein share
in their political history is an understanding of the debilitating
nature of political splits and the wounding power of allegations
that they are "selling out". In large part, the decommissioning
impasse can be seen as a tussle between pro-Agreement Unionism
and pro-Agreement Republicanism for the political dead-weight
of weaponry, which could prevent them from being toppled by internal
or external critics.
2. WHY DID
Although weapons had a political value for Republicans,
the leadership was also aware of the costs accrued from delaying
on disarmament. The failure to decommission periodically engendered
unwelcome pressure from the British and Irish governments; it
also helped fracture Unionism to such an extent that the institutions
of the Belfast Agreement would themselves be imperilled. The political
value of holding on to weapons centred on easing the Republican
movement's arduous transition, but this did not mean that arms
would need to be retained indefinitely. If the question of decommissioning
could simply be stretched out for as long as it is advantageous,
then the grassroots could be reassured through the period of ideological
adjustment during which their recalcitrant stance on disarmament
could be quietly deconstructed by the leadership. Republicans
could seek concessions on issues such as policing or demilitarisation
in return for gradualist movement on decommissioning. These advances,
alongside the continued electoral growth of Sinn Fein, would improve
morale at the movement's base, making actual decommissioning all
the more likely. A more propitious framework for decommissioning
was developed by the two governmentsdecommissioning was
increasingly seen as being linked to other issues of security
such as demilitarisation and policing. In this respect working
towards a common understanding of security was crucial to reduce
the symbolic value of arms, on all sides.
Perhaps the greatest boost to decommissioning
was given by the electoral results of June 2001. In these elections
Sinn Fein nosed ahead of the SDLP to become the largest Nationalist
party. Simply put, Republican bullets have been decisively superseded
by the ballot as a political tool. Weaponry had no real use anymore
and might actually be an impediment to further electoral growth;
it certainly presented a clear danger to the Belfast Agreement
which Sinn Fein supports. It may be helpful to revisit certain
tenets of Republican military strategy to assess just how far
they, and the peace process, have come. Republican violence had
several components. The first component was to act as a costly
irritant to the British state. The second, to draw attention and
publicity to the question of partition, a form of propaganda by
deed. The third, to foil attempts by the British, Unionists, and
constitutional Nationalists to reach an internal settlement. IRA
violence could act as a partial veto on any prospective settlement;
it tended to act as a corrosive and partial solvent on any possible
rapprochement. The attempt to harry and harass the British until
they withdrew from Ireland failed as the state simply dug itself
in for the `Long War'. Armed propaganda became unnecessaryand
of course, prone to backfire bloodilywhen Sinn Fein was
being feted by political leaders worldwide for having moved on
to the road of peace. The partial veto deriving from IRA activity
has now been replaced by the very real veto inherent in being
the largest Nationalist party. In terms of traditional Republican
strategy, guns are of no use and only serve to expose Republicanism
to political attack from its opponents. The electoral success
of Sinn Fein has proved the efficacy of Sinn Fein's peace strategy
and has given them the political space to disarm without appearing
to have surrendered.
These internal circumstances favouring an act
of decommissioning were already crystallising when unforeseen
external factors greatly accelerated the process. Revelations
about IRA involvement in the training of the Marxist FARC paramilitaries
in Colombia soured Republican relations with the US government
and large swathes of Irish America. Soon after, this embarrassment
was compounded by the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington.
To be associated with an organisation which the US State Department
viewed as terrorist, and to have the residual taint of terrorist
methods, threatened to place Republicanism outside the political
pale. Although these circumstances underlined the need for decommissioning
within Republican thinking and accelerated its progress, the process
was already underway.
3. LOYALISM AND
The political outlook within Loyalism differs
from that of Republicans on the merits of the peace process, and
appears less consistent. IRA decommissioning was fuelled by a
strong adherence to the survival of the institutions of the new
political dispensation; the political space to decommission was
created by their electoral success. In contrast, many Loyalists
feel that the new dispensation has done little for them, or the
working class areas in which they live. Loyalism's political concerns,
the thinking goes, have been overshadowed by the more media savvy
and electorally successful Sinn Fein. The Loyalist presence in
the electoral arena is weak, and thus does not act as a powerful
incentive to relinquish weaponry. The contrary, economic, and
in fact criminal incentives of sustaining paramilitary structures
beyond the original political goals, have become prevailing in
many Loyalist circles. Wholesale decommissioning obviously entails
either a partial or all-encompassing transformation or conversion
of a paramilitary organisations.
A growing sense of political inclusion has helped
draw Republicanism into the decommissioning process. Only a similar
sense of ownership and inclusion in the political process would
assist Loyalists in moving along a similar path. Achieving this
will be a difficult and sensitive task given the hindrance of
Loyalism's relatively unsuccessful performance at the polls. It
should not be forgotten that constitutional participation, or
other forms of political empowerment, provide the space in which
disarmament can more easily be undertaken. Exclusion, while it
can act as a lever that pressures the representatives of armed
groups, simultaneously cuts away at their political room for manoeuvre.
4. EXTERNAL ASSISTANCE
Unfortunately, the symbolic, ideological value
of the gun did not lend itself easily to pragmatic solutions,
and the result was a paralysing tussle for some years.
In seeking a way to transform this tussle, the
International Independent Commission on Decommissioning (IICD)
played a valuable role as a third party interlocutor; although
critics would have preferred that the IICD adopt a more proactive
stance, the meticulous, incremental approach of the Commission
achieved a certain degree of success. Lessons for other processes
of small arms disarmament can be highlighted. The confidence building
nature of the independent inspections of arms dumps, a crucial
element of external involvement, was an imaginative step which
served to ease an armed group into actual decommissioning. It
avoided the political pain, and symbolic sensitivity, of immediate
disarmament by advancing towards it incrementally. The "dual-key"
system implied that the armed group still retained possession
of the weapons, even though the dumps had been compromised, and
would be further compromised with each inspection. The inspections
acted as a surrogate process of decommissioning, allowing political
movement to take place, which advancing the chances of a full
blown decommissioning event. The efforts to redefine decommissioning
as a process that, rather than endeavouring to surrender and destroy
weapons seeks to "put them beyond use", exemplifies
the type of creativity that was needed and developed vis-a"-vis
symbolically driven mindsets.
When weaponry has substantial symbolic value
attached to it, confidentiality is key to the process. A certain
degree of secrecy about the method of disposal and the quantity
of arms decommissioned allows armed groups some protection against
internal criticism and the cries of triumphalism from their political
opponents. To put it more bluntly, it allows them to save face.
Secrecy about the disposal of illegal weaponry may seem distasteful
in an open democracy, but if disarmament is achieved than the
end justifies the means. There is, however, an important proviso
to this: confidentiality will only be accepted if disarmament
is verified by a credible independent body which has the trust
of the participants in the political process. In this regard the
IICD has certainly performed well.
[You may find our findings in a more detailed
publication titled Burying the Hatchet: The Decommissioning
of Paramilitary Arms in Northern Ireland (Authored by Corinna
Hauswedell, and Kris Brown), Bonn: BICC brief 22, March 2002 (full
text online: www.bicc.de/publications/briefs/brief22/content.html)]
By drawing the lessons learnt from the decommissioning
debate more prominently into the reconciliation process, we like
to suggest to bring the following more general questions to the
attention of the inquiry:
Which were the historical (and actual
political) reasons and justifications for Republicans and Unionists/Loyalists
to take up arms in the first place?
How can the turning points and the
process be described when weapons started to become of major symbolic
Which specifically "Irish"
or "British" connotations and perceptions regarding
their conflicting common history made disarmament such a difficult
Which role did outside involvement
play during the course of the violent conflict and especially
during the peace process to foster or hinder solutions to the
issues of arms?