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20 February 2015
The Good Friday Agreement

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Policing and Justice
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Image of republican graffiti, stating "Not a bullet, not an ounce"
Graffiti expressing the republican attitude towards decommissioning

The decommissioning of paramilitary weapons has dominated the Northern Ireland peace process since it began in 1990. The unresolved issue has threatened to collapse the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. The increase in 'spoiler' violence from dissident splinter groups, dissatisfied with the direction of the peace process, has put increased pressure on the pro-cease-fire paramilitaries to decommission.

The loosely worded section in the Agreement states that the participants to the multi-party talks reaffirm and commit themselves to the "total disarmament of all paramilitary organisations". They agree "to use any influence they may have to achieve the decommissioning of all paramilitary arms within two years following endorsement in referenda north and south of the Agreement and in the context of the implementation of the overall settlement". The specific timetable agreed for decommissioning was the 22 May 2000 but that date was contingent on the "implementation of the overall settlement."

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Key Academic Opinions
A farewell to arms
The inflation of the decommissioning issue
Imperfect peace

It was agreed that the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning headed by Canadian General John de Chastelain should be responsible for reviewing and verifying progress and report to the British and Irish governments at regular intervals. The Agreement does not require the formal surrender of illegal weapons to either the British or Irish governments. Nor does it confer on any political party or leader the right to exercise a veto on the implementation of the Agreement until decommissioning takes place.

Image of General John de Chastelain, against a montage of weapons
General John de Chastelain leads the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning

Unionists and republicans differ on their interpretation of the 200-word text that outlines how decommissioning is to be dealt with. The unionists claim that Sinn Féin is inextricably linked with the IRA and cannot understand why Gerry Adams does not instruct the IRA to decommission. Sinn Féin claim they are an independent political party, have no formal links with the IRA and are in no position to instruct them to do anything. They did however agree, in the words of the Agreement, "to use any influence they may have, to achieve the decommissioning of all paramilitary arms within two years" of the referendum.

This decommissioning deadline of 22 May 2000 began to unravel when Trimble invoked his manifesto commitment of "no guns, no government" and refused to form an Executive shortly after he was elected First Minister on 1 July 1988. Sinn Féin regarded Trimble's refusal as an act of bad faith. They argued that decommissioning was linked to the "implementation of the overall settlement" and therefore the IRA was under no legal obligation to disarm until that remit had been fulfilled. Moreover, their democratic mandate entitled them to have two Ministers in the Executive. Loyalist paramilitaries said they would consider decommissioning when they had evidence of IRA decommissioning.

Key Academic Opinions
Decommissioning is not surrender


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