Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs Written Evidence


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 of reconciliation.

  We want to argue in favour of including—beyond dealing already with the various consequences of paramilitary and state violence—the 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 Societies—A 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 process.

  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 understanding—not necessarily forgiving—may set free the minds for a future of dealing with conflict by non-violent means.

  You may find a summary of our conclusions helpful to explain the suggested approach in more detail.


  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.


  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 governments—decommissioning 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 unnecessary—and of course, prone to backfire bloodily—when 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.


  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.


  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:]

  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 significance?

    —  Which specifically "Irish" or "British" connotations and perceptions regarding their conflicting common history made disarmament such a difficult issue?

    —  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?

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