views updated


Decommissioning entered the lexicon of the Irish peace process obliquely. It was not mentioned specifically in the Downing Street Declaration of December 1993, which stated that only parties committed to "exclusively peaceful means" could fully engage in the political process. Nor did a clarification of the declaration the following May make any specific reference to disarmament. It made its official entrance only in March 1995 in a speech given by the Northern Ireland secretary of state in Washington, D.C. The "Washington 3" speech contained three elements: the acceptance of the principles of disarmament; the modalities by which it could be achieved; and a gesture of decommissioning as an act of good faith prior to all-party talks. Paramilitary groups balked at the third because it was interpreted as surrender. Washington 3 had followed the cessation of violence by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in August 1994 and an Ulster Unionist Party policy paper the following January that proposed establishing an International Commission on Decommissioning (adopted by the British in June 1995). In addition, Washington 3 was launched two weeks after the Frameworks Document, which was considered to be too nationalist by unionists.

So decommissioning was wrapped in ambiguity. Republicans set it in the wider context of total demilitarization as part of a process rather than accepting it as a condition of entry into all-party talks. The Irish government worried that it was an examination that republicans could not pass. In November 1995 the two governments attempted to break the impasse with their "twin-track" process of making progress on decommissioning in parallel with all-party negotiations. An independent body chaired by former U.S. Senator George Mitchell, reporting in January 1996, made the stark point that "success in the peace process cannot be achieved simply by reference to the decommissioning of arms." It enunciated six fundamental principles of democracy and nonviolence. But it was too late: In February an IRA bomb exploded in London. The cease-fire was not reinstated until July 1997 after Labour had won a massive general election victory in May and the secretary of state had announced that decommissioning was "secondary to actually getting people into talks."

An Independent International Commission on Decommissioning (IICD) was instituted to stimulate the process. In the Belfast Agreement of April 1998 the parties affirmed their commitment to paramilitary disarmament and to using their influence to achieve decommissioning within two years. In June, Sinn Féin spoke of "a voluntary decommissioning [as a] natural development of the peace process" and appointed Martin McGuinness as its representative to the IICD in September. Many unionists countered with a "no guns, no government" policy, meaning that Sinn Féin could not be in government unless the IRA began decommissioning. It was not until June 2000 that an inspection of an IRA dump was carried out, followed by a second inspection in October and a third in May 2001. On 23 October 2001 the IRA publicly declared that it would be putting its weapons permanently and verifiably beyond use. But by the deadline of February 2002 full-scale decommissioning had not happened, and the deadline was extended for another year, with an option until 2007. The secretary of state put all of this in context when he said that decommissioning would not be finished for a generation, and that ultimately it is "culture and the mind-set that has to be decommissioned."

SEE ALSO Adams, Gerry; Irish Republican Army (IRA); Northern Ireland: Constitutional Settlement from Sunningdale to Good Friday; Northern Ireland: The United States in Northern Ireland since 1970; Primary Documents: Irish Republican Army (IRA) Cease-Fire Statement (31 August 1994); Text of the IRA Cease-Fire Statement (19 July 1997); The Belfast/Good Friday Agreement (10 April 1998)


Hauswedell, Corinna, and Kris Brown. Burying the Hatchet: The Decommissioning of Paramilitary Arms in Northern Ireland. Bonn International Center for Conversion Brief 22. 2002.

Hennessey, Thomas. The Northern Ireland Peace Process: Ending the Troubles? 2000.

Mallie, Eamon, and David McKittrick. The Fight for Peace. 1997.

Mitchell, George J. Making Peace. 1999.

Paul Arthur