Striking a Balance took the story of the peace process to the end of 1999. At this point the presence of Sinn Féin in the Executive while the Irish Republican Army (IRA) had not decommissioned their weapons had become the biggest stumbling block. It has remained the issue that divides the parties and has consistently brought the devolved institutions close to collapse. However there have also been periods when a spirit of cooperation between the pro-Agreement parties has been evident. Outside the Assembly they have at times shown a greater joint resolve to deal with some of the grassroots disputes over issues such as territory and parades, which cause instability and uncertainty.
The first suspension of the devolved institutions came 72 days after they were established. In November 1999, the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) had agreed to continue to support the implementation of the Agreement and cooperate in the establishment of the Executive on the basis that it would lead to decommissioning. The IRA said in a statement on 3 December that it would appoint an interlocutor with the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning (IICD). But the UUP determined that it would review its support at a meeting of the ruling council two months later at the end of February 2000. By then, it appeared that there had been insufficient progress to ensure that the UUP leader, David Trimble, could command the support of his party to stay in office. If Trimble had resigned it might have meant the collapse of the whole system as there were no other Unionists willing or able to make it work. So the then British Secretary of State Peter Mandelson used his power to suspend the Assembly, eventually restoring it three and half months later.
The hiatus was broken by another round of talks, out of which emerged a new deadline for decommissioning at the end of June 2001. On that basis the Assembly and the Northern Ireland Executive began to work and deal with the everyday issues of government. The institutions performed well with all parties playing mainly responsible and constructive roles. But the manoeuvring continued over key issues such as decommissioning and policing and other less central matters. The UUP still felt vulnerable in the unionist community over decommissioning and continued to cajole and threaten the UK government to exert pressure on the IRA and Sinn Féin. Another tactic was to bar Sinn Féin ministers from taking part in the joint bodies representing the Irish government and the Northern Ireland Executive. These are important for Sinn Féin as they point to possible all-Ireland institutions in the future. David Trimble argued that as First Minister he had the power to determine who attended these bodies. While the courts did not uphold this claim, the Ministers were still unable to attend meetings while the case went to appeal.
In the run-up to June 2001 elections, in an attempt to bolster his precarious position, Trimble submitted a letter of resignation as First Minister post-dated for midnight on 30 June. On that date, with no evidence that decommissioning was imminent and under pressure from his party, Trimble's resignation took effect on the grounds that decommissioning should have taken place . A new First and Deputy First Minister had to be appointed within six weeks or else the whole system would collapse. There seemed to be no possibility that the UUP would re-appoint David Trimble or appoint an alternative unless there were further moves on decommissioning. During the intervening six weeks, the British and Irish governments held a new round of talks at Weston Park in England which resulted in a paper dealing with most of the outstanding concerns of the parties. It focused mainly on issues of security and policing, which nationalists had been unhappy about, and indicated that decommissioning was an essential element that would be dealt with by the IICD. There was a widespread assumption that the contents of the paper would lead to some shift on decommissioning by the IRA. A period of consultation followed within the pro-Agreement parties to assess whether the proposals were sufficient to reassure all of them that they should continue the process.
However the elements of the paper which met nationalist demands further alienated unionist opinion by avoiding specific commitment on decommissioning. The UUP was unwilling and indeed in no position to reinstate the First Minister. The Secretary of State, now John Reid, ordered another short suspension of the Assembly, giving a further six weeks to reach some breakthrough. However, the use of these legal niceties as a way to avoid a vote in the assembly was against the spirit of the provision and was in danger of bringing the whole process into disrepute.
Towards the end of this six weeks a possibility of progress began to emerge. In the eyes of republicans decommissioning is more related to the British presence than to the actions of unionists, because the IRA had always argued that its campaign was against the British. Therefore throughout this period it had been understood that a reduction of the British military presence would make it easier to achieve acceptance of decommissioning within the IRA. Considerable steps towards the removal of the military presence had been taken during the ceasefire and after the Agreement. However there were still some contentious installations in republican areas and the British government had been slow to remove them, allegedly because of pressure from its military and intelligence advisers, but also in light of the continuing threats from dissident republican groups. Now the government agreed privately to take further steps if decommissioning commenced and, with that assurance and the steps agreed at the negotiations in the summer, the IRA decommissioned a quantity of weapons. Despite unionist complaints that it was done in secret with only the IICD knowing the numbers of weapons and the method of disposal, the government immediately ordered the removal of some military installations. The UUP then agreed to re-nominate David Trimble as the First Minister, and Mark Durkan, who was expected to take over the leadership of the SDLP, was nominated as new Deputy First Minister.
Despite the ensuing successful vote to elect Trimble and Durkan, the credibility of the process had been challenged by the need to rely on artifices. Not only did it depend on re-designation as unionists by some of the centre-ground Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs), but the new initiatives had happened so close to the six week deadline that the first vote took place on the very last day. At this point the Secretary of State should have considered calling elections or further suspension.
However the second vote took place the following Monday. The DUP subsequently began legal proceedings to show the actions of the Secretary of State and the election to be unlawful. The Assembly and Executive began working again, together with the cross-border bodies, and to all outward appearances they were functioning well and envisioning a long term future. However the threat remained that unionists hostile to the Agreement would bring down the system. One possibility was that the DUP would attract sufficient disaffected UUP MLAs to be able to vote down the UUP. However the DUP was working effectively within the system and any moves to precipitate a crisis were rather half-hearted.
It was more likely that the disaffected members of the UUP would change party policy at a party council meeting. Paramilitary involvement in the Holy Cross incident in summer 2001, which is described below, served as a reminder that the paramilitary groups were still active even if the earlier type of military action had largely ceased. While any evidence of continuing paramilitary activity was unsettling, the main focus was on republican activity. This was partly because the unionists felt that it was in their interest to raise the issue, and because participation in the Executive was dependent on renouncing violence (two members of Sinn Féin, which is linked to the IRA, were in the Executive). A number of IRA activities also drew attention to themselves. Three members were arrested in Colombia after spending time with the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), the militant revolutionary group which at that stage was still in negotiations with the Colombian government. Also, some members were arrested for shipping armaments from Miami, USA to Ireland. The police service also accused the IRA of being responsible for a raid on police headquarters when special branch documents were stolen.
Other issues were also still causing severe strains, not least the reform of policing. The Royal Ulster Constabulary had been reformed to create the new Northern Ireland Policing Service (PSNI), but Sinn Féin considered the reforms inadequate and refused to take their seats on the new Policing Board.
Pressure built up through 2002 and it began to appear that a new challenge by anti-Agreement UUP members to its participation in the Executive was imminent. There was talk that Sinn Féin should be excluded from the Assembly; this could be done by a vote of the members but it was unlikely that it would gain the necessary nationalist support. There were also calls that the Secretary of State should use his powers to exclude them. The issue came to a head on 5 October 2002 when the PSNI raided the offices of Sinn Féin at Stormont. It appeared that party workers had been carrying out surveillance of other parties, compiling dossiers of information and acquiring confidential documents. There were different views on the seriousness of these activities. While some argue that all parties use the best intelligence that they can get, it reflected the conspiratorial nature of Northern Irish politics and may even have been a way of keeping former combatants occupied. However the breach of trust angered unionist representatives who said politics could not work if that trust was missing.
The momentum of events put increasing pressure on each unionist party to outdo the other in their toughness. Amid a flurry of motions to exclude Sinn Fein from the Executive, John Reid suspended the institutions again. Prime Minister Tony Blair's subsequent call for "acts of completion" seemed to signal what was required for a resolution of the situation. The Agreement had stated when different processes had to begin, but not when they would be complete, and perhaps his implication was that schemes such as those for decommissioning should be nearing completion.
At the political level it was assumed that suspension would be followed by a new round of discussions and possibly a review under the terms of the Agreement. However there was a lengthy pause with occasional bilateral meetings between the local political parties and the Irish and British governments. The most remarkable feature of the suspension was the lack of reaction from the public. Perhaps there was a feeling that similar situations had happened before. Perhaps people did not see that suspension would make a great deal of difference, even among those who liked the idea of local institutions of government.
The next deadline arose because under the Agreement rules on elections the term of the Assembly would expire at the end of April 2003. New elections were scheduled for 1 May. It was the general view that the more intransigent parties would benefit if the institutions were not operating and the UUP in particular would suffer. It also seemed to be the view of the British government that it would not be helpful if the DUP became the largest unionist party.
However one read the prospects, the search for a resolution began to gain momentum. The procedure seemed to be similar to previous suspensions. The governments would develop a plan of action that they would undertake and as a result the IRA would make some movement on decommissioning. This would then be sufficient for David Trimble to get the support of his party for going back into the Assembly and restarting the process. However it seemed likely that the party's supporters – if not the members of its ruling council – were unlikely to be impressed with their leader and any proposals he would bring. They had been in similar situations a number of times since the signing of the Agreement and from their perspective no progress had been made on their concerns.
On the fifth Good Friday since the signing of the Agreement it seemed there was little hope that the existing positions would be reconciled and a new formula found to restart the institutions – certainly not before the date for the elections. So after postponing the elections to 29 May the UK Prime Minister suspended them indefinitely arguing that there was no consensus among the parties to make the institutions work and therefore the electorate would not know for what body they were electing members.