IRA Walkout Is a Serious Blow to Ireland Peace

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Getting Northern Ireland's beleaguered peace process back on track may have just become a whole lot harder, if not impossible. The IRA Tuesday withdrew from the body supervising the decommissioning of weapons, in response to Friday's decision by London to suspend the territory's self-rule institutions in order to prevent a Unionist walkout. "This could be an extremely serious development for the future of Northern Ireland," says former TIME London bureau chief Barry Hillenbrand. "If they stop talking to the disarmament commission, that would mean declaring that the game of chicken is over and that they're not playing any more."

The Unionists have demanded that the IRA show signs of its intention to disarm, threatening to collapse the self-rule institutions created by the Good Friday Agreement if there was no progress. But despite criticism from the Irish government and other sections of the Catholic community in Northern Ireland, the IRA refuses to hand over any weapons under duress: An IRA statement accused the Unionists of trying to deal with the issue of arms only on their own terms, adding "those who seek a military victory in this way need to understand that this cannot and will not happen."

Despite the IRA's hard line, it's unlikely that its weapons — which have been silent for five years — will be put to use. "The IRA is unlikely to go back to war because there's no sentiment on the ground to back that up," says Hillenbrand. "IRA supporters may not be particularly enthusiastic about reconciliation, but their mood is not for going back to war either." After all, there had been an effective cease-fire in Northern Ireland for three years before the Good Friday Agreement. Still, the peace process is now in even deeper trouble than before: Britain's suspension of the self-rule institutions was designed to press the IRA to start disarming; instead it's pushed them away from the table. And even though there's little danger of an imminent return to violence, political conflict, like nature, hates a vacuum.