Background on Decommissioning
Independent International Commission on Decommissioning (IICD)
The United States government played a key role in the NI Peace Process, both during the years of the Clinton White House and to a lesser extent those of George W Bush. Support for the process has remained an important policy objective of all administrations, including Obama’s, not least because of the perceived precedent it has set for solving apparently intractable political and terrorist-type conflicts by peaceful means.The Americans were perceived as people who did not have a dog in the fight, unlike the British and Irish governments, and given also the status of the President and the unwillingness of participants to offend or cross him, this gave Washington a key role and the occupant of the Oval Office special clout.
Clinton facilitated the often difficult and crisis-ridden talks that led to the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, often personally phoning party leaders to urge them to compromise. Bush’s peace ambassador, Mitchell Reiss, former Director of Policy Planning at State, played a central role in the final stages of the process in 2005/2006 when the IRA completed arms decommissioning and a power sharing government was set up.
Not least of the US’s several roles was that of suggesting solutions to very difficult problems in the way of political progress. One was how to deal with paramilitary, especially IRA disarmament. Pro-British, Unionist leaders refused to go into government with the IRA’s political wing, Sinn Fein, until it had destroyed its weapons, and therefore no longer posed a threat, while the IRA/Sinn Fein said it could not trust Unionists to keep their word or trick the IRA into ridding itself of its weapons and thus leverage.
As a result of Clinton’s appointment of George Mitchell as a neutral facilitator, an international body was set up, containing White House appointees inter alia, which gradually arranged for all the major groups, including the IRA, to decommission its weapons in a way satisfactory to everyone. Without this body, without Clinton’s intervention, it is possible the peace process would have been derailed over the decommissioning issue and Northern Ireland would not be where it is today.
The process of paramilitary decommissioning, particularly by the IRA, was a long a tortured affair which at key moments threatened to collapse the entire peace process and pitch Northern Ireland back into conflict. It began in 1999 but was not completed, at least as far as the IRA was concerned, until the Fall of 2005, six years later. Failure to agree earlier decommissioning led to the effective suspension of the Good Friday Agreement and the mothballing of the cross-community, inter-party government. The institutions were only fully set up in 2006, a year after IRA decommissioning was completed.
The part played by the US government in creating and nurturing the IICD and cajoling/pressing the IRA to co-operate with it cannot be understated. The peace process was a major foreign policy achievement of the Clinton White House which loaned former Senate leader George Mitchell to the process in order to oversee a solution to the vexed issue of removing IRA and other paramilitary weapons from the peace equation. The Bush administration was equally supportive and in that case, Bush’s NI peace ambassador Mitchell Reiss is credited by some with achieving the 2005 breakthrough that paved the way for the five years of political stability that followed. One way or another the US has invested a great deal of political capital in the IICD and the commission’s remarks in this report should therefore be judged accordingly.
In July of 2011, the IICD issued its final report, which contains observations which are relevant to the current case involving Boston College’s oral history archives.
Sections relevant to the Boston College case:
para 49, subset c: It seems to us that peace in Northern Ireland inherently involves what is referred to here as parity of esteem. It means accepting that the other side has an absolute right to equal protection under the rule of law. It also means that however reprehensible some acts are that were committed in the past, at some point a line needs to be drawn under them – never to forget, but to be able to move on. For many, and particularly for those who have suffered loss or grievous injury in the past, accepting this conclusion may be very difficult. For some it may be impossible and it may even take generations – but it is, we believe, a worthwhile goal.
3. We have not included with this report copies of correspondence sent to the Commission by private individuals as these might be subject to privacy considerations. Also as directed by Ref. D, we consulted with the Northern Ireland political parties at the outset of our mandate and received from them papers setting out their views on decommissioning. These were provided in confidence and along with the private correspondence they will be deposited with our files for safekeeping by Boston College, Massachusetts, USA, subject to an embargo on their disclosure for thirty years.
30. While the reference direction is silent on the final disposition of the record of decommissioned arms, it has been our understanding from the outset that we would provide that record to the two governments for their information. We continue to believe that to be the right course of action, but we also believe that to do so now would be unhelpful to the peace process. Decommissioning is still incomplete in that armed and active paramilitary groups still possess a variety of arms. We have already referred to the issue of arms that come to light subsequent to the Commission’s dissolution. Providing details now of what paramilitary arms have been put beyond use, could, in our opinion, encourage attacks on those groups which have taken risks for peace. This is true of both Loyalist and Republican paramilitary groups. We would not wish, inadvertently, to discourage future decommissioning events by groups that are actively engaged today, nor to deter groups that have decommissioned their arms from handing over any arms that may subsequently come to light.
Reflections of the process
38. Transparency. [..] In spite of our pointing out the negative consequences of a lack of transparency, all the other paramilitary groups opted to carry out their arms decommissioning in private, with only members of the Commission and in some cases EOD technicians and/or independent witnesses present. As a result, public expectations in this regard were not met. While this situation undoubtedly caused concern to some, we believe that our acceding to a paramilitary group’s decision in this matter was necessary, if decommissioning was to take place.
N. Ireland papers on disarmament archived at BC
Site is compromise after debate over Dublin or Belfast
March 27, 2011|By Kevin Cullen, Globe Staff
Boston College has been chosen to be the repository for the archive of the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning, the body that oversaw the disarming of the Irish Republican Army and other paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland.
Two Finnish members of the commission, Brigadier General Tauno Nieminen, who was one of the weapons inspectors, and Aaro Suonio, the commission’s cabinet chief, delivered the documents to the Chestnut Hill campus on Friday.
There was competition for the archive among British and Irish universities and institutions, and a debate over whether the archive should be housed in Dublin or Belfast. Boston College’s selection was seen as a compromise and as a recognition of the university’s extensive, existing collection of material related to the decades-long conflict in Northern Ireland known as The Troubles.
Following the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 that saw the end of most of the violence in Northern Ireland, Boston College compiled lengthy oral histories with IRA volunteers and British loyalist paramilitary fighters, which are to remain sealed until their deaths.
The archives of the international commission that oversaw the disarming of the various paramilitary factions in Northern Ireland are of particular interest to historians and scholars trying to chart the way the IRA was gradually persuaded to give up some of its weapons and then destroy its vast arsenal, hidden on both sides of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The commission was established in 1997 and only recently disbanded.
Thomas E. Hachey, executive director of the Center for Irish Programs at Boston College and a professor of history, said getting the archive was a coup for BC.
“This is an incredibly valuable collection for future studies on the era of The Troubles,’’ he said. “BC was such a natural fit, and it was a logical alternative to Dublin and Belfast.’’
Just when historians will gain access to the archive is unclear.
“Under Irish and British law the archive could be inaccessible for a period of 30 years,’’ Hachey said. “But there will be periodic review that may grant notably earlier access if approved by the appropriate Anglo-Irish authorities.’’
Hachey and Robert O’Neill, the Burns Librarian at Boston College, received the documents from Nieminen and Suonio on their official last day of service to the commission. The archive will be housed in the special collections at the Burns Library.
Hachey said the awarding of the archive to Boston College was the result of high-level diplomatic efforts on both sides of the Irish border and the Irish Sea. He said Sean Aylward, the secretary general of Ireland’s Department of Justice, had pushed for BC to receive the archive. Aylward was also instrumental in luring Kathleen O’Toole away from her job as Boston Police commissioner to become chief inspector of Ireland’s national police force, the Garda Siochana, in 2006.
The agreement to relocate the archives to Boston was worked out between the international commission, Ireland’s newly appointed Justice Minister Alan Shatter, Britain’s secretary of state for Northern Ireland Owen Paterson, and Hilary Jackson, director general of the Northern Ireland Office.
Hachey said the collection contains the commission’s deliberations and personal notebooks of commission members.
“It will be curated over time, and possibly digitized so that it may eventually be available, at least in part, on the Internet for scholars everywhere,’’ Hachey said.
The commission was chaired by Canadian General John de Chastelain and included Nieminen and, since 1999, American diplomat Andrew Sens. Much of its work was clouded in secrecy because of the sensitivity of getting the IRA, and later loyalist groups, to disarm.
Besides housing the personal histories of many combatants, and now the activities of those who got them to disarm, Boston College has the private papers of Northern Ireland writers and poets, and the entire archive of Bobby Hanvey, a photographer who chronicled The Troubles for four decades.