Treading carefully on path to N. Ireland peace

Despite an impasse, the general charged with overseeing arms handover

Gen. John de Chastelain's family traces its roots to the Scottish clan Drummond, whose motto is "Gang warily" (walk carefully). There could hardly be a better theme for his work overseeing the handover of illegal weapons in Northern Ireland, aimed at ending 30 years of sectarian violence.

"I think that the decommissioning of arms and ammunition can take place ... by May 2000 [the deadline under the 1998 Good Friday peace accord]. There is still sufficient time to carry out this task logistically, administratively, and technically," said General de Chastelain in an interview with the Monitor. "But the closer we get to the deadline, the logistics start to crowd in."

De Chastelain is chairman of the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning that was appointed in August 1997 by the British and Irish governments. The role of the commission is apolitical, but it has a vital role to play if the peace process is to succeed.

The son of an Irish-American Catholic mother and a father who served in the British Army, de Chastelain grew up in Canada. After joining the Army he rose to chief of the defense staff and also served as Canada's ambassador to the US for 1993-94.

His optimism and his realism are clear as he waits for a signal that paramilitary groups in this tortured province are prepared to lay down their arms. So far only one, the pro-British Loyalist Volunteer Force, has handed over a small cache of weapons. That was last December.

Still, de Chastelain remains hopeful. "The issues are so serious, and the potential for continued violence is so great if these issues are not addressed properly, that feelings of frustration are not helpful or justifiable."

At present there is an impasse. The Ulster Unionists, the main Protestant political party, refuse to set up an executive government with Sinn Fein, the political ally of the Irish Republican Army, until the IRA agrees to hand in its arms.

Republicans maintain that decommissioning before May 2000 was not part of the Good Friday Agreement. Former US Sen. George Mitchell, who brokered the accord, is currently engaged in a review with both sides to try to break the deadlock. There was hope for progress after he moved the talks to London for this week.

De Chastelain regards the review as crucial. "There may be no move on decommissioning until it is clear that the peace process is going ahead, and what Senator Mitchell is doing holds the key."

He adds, "Our mandate is not political, so it is not up to us to make a breakthrough.... All we can do is to make it clear to the paramilitary groups that we will not carry out our mandate in any way that indicates surrender or defeat, and that we will meet all the requirements we have given regarding safety, verifiability, and freedom from the forensic testing of weapons for prosecution purposes."

As well as his military knowledge, de Chastelain has the human skills for his delicate task. He has been the guest of a leading Unionist politician, Ken Maginnis, at a game of rugby, one of his favorite sports. As a keen fly fisherman he shares a common interest with Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness. "I respect people I am working with, and if we have common interests, so much the better," he says. He has not had time to pursue his other hobbies: Scottish country dancing (he has even written a dance) and playing the bagpipes.

While he says he cannot be confident that decommissioning will take place, de Chastelain remains optimistic. "All the parties who support the Good Friday Agreement, and even those who do not, have made it clear that they want an end to violence.

"If there is a not en end to violence, that will be some kind of failure. But I don't think that the whole process, in which so many people made such efforts, will be a total failure. I don't think that there would be a return to the horrors of the past. The people would not accept it," he says.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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