A quick update on my post below on the reaction of Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party to the recent finding by the body set up to oversee the process of IRA decommissioning that its goals had finally been completely achieved. Paisley initially claimed that the two witnesses - a protestant minister and a catholic priest, chosen to appeal to both sides in the conflict - had in fact been "nominated by the IRA", thus casting doubts on the impartiality of their views and the reliability of their findings.
After the UUP (the more moderate Unionist Party) denounced this as "sad", the DUP have changed tack a little. Keen not to openly accuse the protestant witness in particular - who has openly stated "I never felt as right about anything as I felt about this" - they have hit on a new formula for perpetuating the conflict for the foreseeable future. They now argue that "No-one is disputing that the two men are faithfully reporting what they saw. The question is, did they see it all?"
At first glance, this looks like an entirely respectable question to ask. The IRA, after all, is a terrorist organisation; as such, it is certainly not above lying in order to achieve political goals. However, a moment's reflection is sufficient to illustrate why this objection, given the context, is both dangerous and disingenious.
It is dangerous because, if accepted, it gives the DUP licence to perpetuate the conflict as long as they see fit. They work, it must be remembered, on two basic principles in this context: 1) the IRA are never to be trusted; and 2) Nobody but the IRA can ever know for certain what weapons they have. These two premises alone mean that it is extremely unlikely that the DUP will ever declare themselves fully satisfied with an act of decommissioning, or at least one that is politically achievable. This, in their view, also gives them carte blanche to continue to refuse to enter into devolved government with Sinn Fein (and it is important to remember, in this regard, that these are the biggest Unionist and Nationalist parties in Northern Ireland at present). The IRA, in its view, has called an end to conflict and disarmed fully, to the satisfaction of the body set up to verify this. However, it may not take much political gamesmanship from the DUP to convince them that there proclaimed faith in the political process was misplaced, and to send us back to square one.
The DUP's new approach is also deeply disingenious, as it ignores the context within which decommissioning has taken place. The body, led by General de Chastelain, was set up precisely to overcome this difficulty created by the fact that only the terrorists know for sure what weapons they have, the witnesses were brought in to ensure a degree of transparency to the process. Paisley's attack on the latter as "IRA nominated" was, of course, intended to remove this transparency, and thus all legitimacy, from the body's findings; however, he has backed away from that, and been left with the insinuation that "they might not have seen it all". Such an argument can thus only be taken seriously by those with a complete (and willful) lack of understanding of the complex substantive and procedural mechanisms that have been set up to ensure that we could be as certain as possible that IRA disarmament was genuine and complete.
The churchmen said in a joint statement that "Beyond any shadow of doubt, the arms of the IRA have now been decommissioned". Reverend Harold Good, the protestant witness, has since acknowledged that it is, of course, impossible in these situations to be absolutely certain of what has happened; this is why particular processes and institutions are set up in the first place. He is also adamant, however, that the inevitable presence of this modicum of uncertainty cannot be allowed to continue to hamper political progress in the manner sought by the DUP. He has noted:
I'm prepared, if it were ever proven to me that I had been fooled in this... well, that's the risk one takes... I don't believe that I have been, not for one moment, but we have to be prepared to be fools for the sake of the greater good.
Although this kind of language does risk playing into the DUP's hands, it must, again, be taken in context: that unavoidable uncertainty must not be allowed to hamper progress that has been achieved beyond all reasonable doubt.