War of Words 

What the foreign papers are saying.
May 8 2000 11:30 PM

War of Words 

Following the Irish Republican Army's historic commitment to put its weapons "completely and verifiably" beyond use, the main obstacle to a resumption of devolved multiparty government in Northern Ireland seems to be the name of its police force. In its main front-page story Monday, the Irish Times of Dublin said the Irish government is ready to concede "something" to the Northern Irish Protestants who are bitter about a British government decision to change the name and the badge of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. It will continue to insist that the RUC must change its name to the Police Service of Northern Ireland, in accordance with the wishes of the province's republican Roman Catholic minority; but it may agree that its constitution states that it incorporates the RUC without including this title in its name, the paper said.

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"Following the dramatic breakthrough over the weekend, police reform has now emerged as the key to successful restoration of the political institutions," the paper said. But in an editorial it warned against major concessions on the issue, even though this would help Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble sell the latest peace deal to his distrustful party. "[T]here must be no backsliding on the need to create a police service which commands the support of all sections of the community. Badges, titles and emblems have more than symbolic significance in Northern Ireland," the editorial said. "The obsession with words and their underlying meaning has been a constant feature of the peace process," the Times of London said Monday in an editorial. In the case of the IRA, the paper went on, "the term 'disarmament' was discarded long ago in favour of the more neutral notion of 'decommissioning.' It now appears that we are moving from 'decommissioning' to 'deactivation.' The dictionary cannot, alone, be asked to frame the political future of Northern Ireland."

But the majority of Irish and British newspapers, including the Times of London, urged Trimble and the Ulster Unionists to respond positively to the IRA's pledge to put its weapons in dumps for inspection by agreeing to reactivate the suspended Northern Ireland parliamentary assembly. The Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail of London continued to doubt the IRA's sincerity. ("Unionists must make sure to ascertain whether the snake of Provisionalism [the IRA] has been defanged, or has simply shed one skin for another," said the Telegraph. "Why does the IRA talk of inspecting only 'a number of' its arms dumps? The ominous implication must be that further dumps will remain hidden," said the Mail.) 

But the mood in the press on both sides of the Irish Sea was generally ebullient. The Catholic Irish News of Belfast said there is every reason to believe that full implementation of the Good Friday agreement, brokered by former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, could finally take place. The Irish Independent of Dublin called the IRA's arms statement "the most dazzling of opportunities"; the Guardian of London called it "a huge and mighty step"; the Independent of London "a seismic shift." They all urged Trimble not to let the opportunity slip. The Daily Telegraph led its front page Monday with a report that Trimble is "quietly confident" of getting his party to accept the IRA compromise. The tabloid Sun, Britain's best-selling newspaper, which last week accused Tony Blair of pursuing peace in Belfast only because he wanted to be out of London when bad local election results came in, dramatically changed its tune Monday. "Tony Blair deserves rich praise for putting last week's election flop behind him and immediately getting on with business," it said.

While the IRA's guns remain silent, the Basque separatist movement, ETA, has allegedly killed four Spaniards since it ended a 15-month ceasefire in December. El Mundo of Madrid led Monday on the murder of its columnist José Luis López de Lacalle, who was gunned down Sunday outside his house in the Basque town of Andoian, 12 miles south of San Sebastián. López, 62, was known for his opposition to Basque separatism. El Mundo published a front-page photograph of his body covered by a bloodstained sheet beside an open, upturned red umbrella. He had been returning home in the rain when a gunman pumped four bullets into him. Police described his death as an ETA assassination. If that is so, López is one of two journalists among the almost 800 people killed by ETA during its 30-year independence struggle. El Mundo's front-page headline echoed a tribute by Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar by calling López a defender of freedom.

The Manila Times complained Monday in an editorial about the effect on its image abroad of the crisis on Mindanao Island, where 21 hostages are being held by Muslim separatists, and of the charge that the ILOVEYOU computer virus was launched by a 23-year-old Philippine national from a poor district of Manila. "This is dirt we could certainly do without," it said. "As the crisis in Mindanao drags on without an end in sight, we must increasingly seem, to the rest of the world, as a small, malicious and destructive people, bent on holding the western countries (or Northern, or white, depending on your perspective) hostage, through judicious manipulation of technology or of 21 hapless human beings." But the editorial found a silver lining in a claim that the computer virus "strongly underlines the fact that our talent can hold its own against the rest of the world's."

A former British soldier who saw service in Bosnia has turned himself over to the police after defacing the statue of Sir Winston Churchill in Parliament Square during the violent anti-capitalist demonstration in London on May 1. James Matthews, 25, a student of English literature at Cambridge, had been shown in several newspapers spraying red paint on to Churchill's face, making it look as if blood was trickling from the corner of his mouth. The statue was left covered in graffiti and with a piece of turf on its head in the style of a Mohican haircut. Matthews told the Guardian Monday that he condemned the simultaneous desecration of the nearby Cenotaph, the memorial to the British dead in two world wars, because "it's a monument to ordinary soldiers, and I was an ordinary soldier." But he was unrepentant about his defacing of Churchill's statue. "Churchill was often an irrational, sometimes vainglorious leader whose impetuosity, egotism and bigotry on occasion cost many lives unnecessarily and caused much suffering that was needless and unjustified," he said. 

Alexander Chancellor is a columnist for the Guardian.

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