Ireland: a peace sorely tested

May 27, 1998

By Dave Riley

With the May 22 referenda behind them, the people of Ireland are sure to be asking themselves: what happens now?

The Good Friday agreement, which formed the basis of the poll, could claim to fulfil its charter only if all the paramilitary forces active in Northern Ireland joined the cease-fire.

In the week before the referenda, the Loyalist Volunteer Force announced a cease-fire, the last of the loyalist paramilitary forces to do so.

The LVF's leader, Billy "King Rat" Wright, was shot dead in the Maze prison by the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) on December 26. Since then, the LVF has murdered 12 nationalists.

The LVF was anxious to take advantage of the prisoner release program suggested in the terms of the Good Friday agreement. Early release of prisoners is conditional upon the paramilitary groups of which the prisoners are members being on cease-fire.

With the Irish Republican Army cautiously supporting the agreement, the only militias still officially on a war footing are some small Republican splinter groups and the INLA. Technically, a sort of peace is supposed to exist in Northern Ireland.

A major sticking point, however, is the question of arms decommissioning. The IRA has refused to disarm immediately. The British government is adamant that if it does not comply, Sinn Féin cannot participate in the proposed new assembly. The situation is, however, a little short on trust to encourage the IRA to hand over its arsenal.

While the agreement focuses on the paramilitary forces in its quest for peace, no such guarantees are offered by the British occupying forces.

So far, the only concession that the British army has made toward peace is to replace its tin hats with felt ones. Republicans complain that in some areas the British military presence is heavier than it was before the IRA cease-fire. Despite that, and despite its "peacekeeping" role, the army failed to prevent the unionists' killing spree following the death of Billy Wright.

Similarly, the hated Royal Ulster Constabulary, the statelet's unionist-dominated police force, remains intact. The agreement states that a commission will review the entire structure of policing in the north. However, unionist spokespeople have declared the RUC to be "untouchable". This seems to confirm nationalists' belief that the RUC is a paramilitary wing of unionism.

With the Protestant marching season already under way, the security of the peace in Northern Ireland is sure to be sorely tested.

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