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  • Irish Nationalism and Orange Unionism in Canada:A Reappraisal
  • Robert McLaughlin (bio)

On sunday evening, 5 April 1998, just four days before the 9 April deadline of the ongoing Northern Ireland peace process, the independent chairman of the peace talks (and former US senator from Maine) George Mitchell and his colleagues faced yet another dilemma regarding the draft of the proposed agreement. British and Irish government officials had just delivered the first draft of the crucially important but highly controversial Strand Two portion of the negotiations, which dealt with North/South joint governing councils. Mitchell and his colleagues—the former Finnish Prime Minister Harri Holkeri and Canadian General Jean de Chastelain—quickly examined the document and immediately realized that the extensive number of proposed North/South governing bodies would be utterly unacceptable to the Ulster Unionist party, the largest Protestant political party in Northern Ireland.1 Exacerbating this immediate problem was the insistence of the British and Irish governments that this Strand Two draft be included without change in the overall agreement as if it were that of Mitchell and his colleagues, and not the product of British and Irish negotiations.

According to George Mitchell, General de Chastelain quickly assessed "the circumstances and suggested we had essentially three [End Page 80] options: we could accede to their demand; we could include their Strand Two within our comprehensive draft but identify it as theirs, not ours; or we could rewrite it and then include it as ours, as it would then be."2 Option three was quickly ruled out, and Mitchell and his colleagues eventually decided to accede to the wishes of the two governments and to include the Strand Two document without changes. Not surprisingly, the Ulster unionists rejected it outright. After furious negotiations, and the acquiescence of the Irish government to the number and scope of the North/South governing councils, the Northern Ireland Peace Agreement was accepted on Good Friday, 10 April 1998. It brought peace, and for the first time an equitable power-sharing form of self-government to that troubled statelet. Although numerous roadblocks have been placed in the path of this exercise in regional self-government, history was made that Good Friday, and continues to be made in Northern Ireland as a result of that historic agreement.

The acceptance of the Good Friday agreement brought about a political settlement of issues and demands which had been previously contested through violence. Although the peace settlement obligated participants to use their influence to completely decommission weapons, the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) disarmed at a pace much slower than originally anticipated by the other parties to the peace process. Nevertheless, the settlement fostered a political climate which enabled the IRA to decommission large stocks of weapons in October 2001, April 2002, and November 2003. Prior to the commencement of the Good Friday negotiations, General de Chastelain had been appointed chairman of the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning (IICD), and in that role he verified each of these instances of the IRA's destruction of portions of its arsenal. And again, most recently, following the IRA stand-down and announced cessation of all military operations in June 2005, Jean de Chastelain verified that IRA weapons had been put "beyond use." De Chastelain and his colleagues on the IICD, along with witnesses Harold Good, the former president of the Methodist Church of Ireland, and the Redemptorist priest Father Alec Reid, spent a week examining the [End Page 81] weapons which were to be rendered inoperative. At the press conference to announce the IRA's full compliance with the original call for decommissioning, General de Chastelain declared, "We are satisfied that the arms decommissioning represents the totality of the IRA's arsenal."3 Though Jean de Chastelain's role in the Northern Ireland peace process was less prominent than George Mitchell's, it was and continues to be no less significant. Jean de Chastelain has played a pivotal role in the Northern Ireland peace process; and unbeknownst to most North Americans, General de Chastelain is not the lone Canadian involved in Northern Ireland's political affairs.

In late 1999, Tony Blair's Labour government finally announced a renewed investigation into...


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