Disarmament: Northern Ireland Good Friday Agreement

Disarmament: Strand Three

Decommissioning

1. Participants recall their agreement in the Procedural Motion adopted on 24 September 1997 "that the resolution of the decommissioning issue is an indispensable part of the process of negotiation", and also recall the provisions of paragraph 25 of Strand 1 above.

2. They note the progress made by the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning and the Governments in developing schemes which can represent a workable basis for achieving the decommissioning of illegally-held arms in the possession of paramilitary groups.

3. All participants accordingly reaffirm their commitment to the total disarmament of all paramilitary organisations. They also confirm their intention to continue to work constructively and in good faith with the Independent Commission, and to use any influence they may have, to achieve the decommissioning of all paramilitary arms within two years following endorsement in referendums North and South of the agreement and in the context of the implementation of the overall settlement.

4. The Independent Commission will monitor, review and verify progress on decommissioning of illegal arms, and will report to both Governments at regular intervals.

6. Both Governments will take all necessary steps to facilitate the decommissioning process to include bringing the relevant schemes into force by the end of June.

Implementation History

1998

No Implementation

The Good Friday Agreement provided for the establishment of the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning (IICD) to monitor, review, and verify the total disarmament of all paramilitary organizations. The deadline for completing the disarmament was May 2000. The Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act (1997), which received Royal Assent on 27 February 1997, had a provision in Article 7 for the establishment of an independent decommissioning commission. The act was enacted before the accord was signed in 1998. Therefore, the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning was already established when the accord was signed and was headed by Canadian General John de Chastelain.1 The disarmament, however, did not start in 1998. The Unionists and the Republicans differed on the interpretation of the wording on decommission as the Republicans claimed that they had no formal links with the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and therefore were not in a position to influence the IRA. The decommissioning issue delayed the formation of the power-sharing executive: David Trimble from the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) refused to form the government after the July 1998 elections,2 and so decommissioning did not begin in 1998.

1999

No Implementation

The decommissioning did not begin in 1999. After the Hillsborough Declaration of 1 April 1999, efforts to break the stalemate and propose a date for the removal of paramilitary weapons failed. As the process stalled, the government asked Senator George Mitchell to review the peace process. In his report, Mitchell concluded that "devolution should take effect, then the Executive should meet, and then the paramilitary groups should appoint their authorised representatives, all on the same day, in that order".3 Power was devolved in Northern Ireland, the executive was set up, and authorized representatives were appointed on 2 December 1999. In December, the commission had separate talks with representatives of the IRA, the Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF), the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), and the Red Hand Commando (RHC).4

  • 3. “Mitchell bows out leaving basis for peace,” The Guardian, November 18, 1999.
  • 4. “Northern Ireland paramilitaries will disarm, says De Chastelain,” Agence France Presse, December 10, 1999.
2000

No Implementation

Because no progress was made in terms of decommissioning weapons, the Assembly and the Executive were suspended on 11 February. After protracted negotiations, the IRA allowed two international arms inspectors, the former African National Congress (ANC) negotiator, Cyril Ramaphosa, and the former Finnish president, Martti Ahtisaari, to check that weapons were “completely and verifiably” beyond use.5 For the first time, the IRA opened its weapon caches for two international monitors. In their two-page long report to the IICD, the observers said that they observed that the “weapons and explosive were safely and adequately stored”.6

  • 5. “Disarming Northern Ireland,” Washington Time, May 9, 2000.
  • 6. “Arms inspectors verify IRA arsenal out of use,” The Globe and Mail (Canada), June 27, 2000.
2001

Minimum Implementation

While the IRA seemed committed to decommissioning their weapons, the Unionists were not satisfied. On 1 June 2001, David Trimble resigned as the First Minister. Also, three IRA suspects were arrested in Colombia for allegedly assisting FARC guerrillas. Under tremendous pressure, the IRA announced on 23 October that they had begun a process of putting arms beyond use. Verification of this by the IICD did not satisfy all Unionists, however.7

  • 7. “The Good Friday Agreement – Decommissioning.”
2002

Minimum Implementation

After the arrest of IRA suspects in 2001, the 1997 Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act was amended and legally required the Loyalist and Republican groups to put their weapons beyond use under the supervision of the IICD. The amendment was passed on 26 February 2002. The amendment extended the deadline for decommissioning until 27 February 2003 and contained a provision for its annual extension until 2007.8

2003

Minimum Implementation

According to IICD chairman John de Chastelain, considerably large amounts of machine guns, explosives, and detonators were destroyed in October. Nevertheless, the Unionist leader John Trimble maintained that a clear, transparent report of major acts was needed.9 Transparency in decommissioning dominated the peace process in Northern Ireland.

  • 9. “Destruction of some IRA weapons fails to defuse distrust,” The Gazette (Montreal, Quebec), October 22, 2003.
2004

Minimum Implementation

Transparency in the Decommissioning Act dominated the peace process throughout 2004. The Unionists maintained that they would only accept actual decommissioning as the way forward in the peace process.10 The IRA, however, maintained that visual proof of decommissioning was impossible, as it was a humiliating demand.11

  • 10. “Northern Ireland's Sinn Fein calls on Unionist party to clarify position,” BBC News, August 10, 2004.
  • 11. “Northern Ireland set for peace deal,” Sunday Herald, December 12, 2004.
2005

Full Implementation

Significant achievement was made after the IRA announced in July that it had ceased its armed struggle and would “dump arms” in favor of democratic means. According to security estimates, the IRA possessed the following weaponry: 1,000 rifles, 2 tonnes of Semtex, 20-30 heavy machine guns, 7 Surface-to-air missiles (unused), 7 flame throwers, 1,200 detonators, 11 rocket-propelled grenade launchers, 90 hand guns, and 100+ grenades. On September 26, 2005 the IICD was reported to have verified and decommissioned the weaponry.12 According to IICD chairman General John de Chastelain, two churchmen had witnessed the decommissioning process. The IICD had observed and verified events that put very large quantities of arms beyond use, which the commission believed included all arms in the IRA’s possession.13 The British Prime Minister remarked that the act was “an important step in the transition from conflict to peace in Northern Ireland” and the Irish Prime Minister said that the act was a “landmark development”. Nevertheless, the Unionists were unhappy because there was no photographic evidence.14

2006

Full Implementation

The decommissioning of IRA weapons was completed in 2005. The disarmament provision of the accord had been implemented.

2007

Full Implementation

No further developments observed.