RAY BASSETT, former head of the Anglo-Irish Secretariat and Irish Ambassador to Canada pays tribute to General John de Chastelain as we approach the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.
President Higgins recently presented the Distinguished Service Award to Canadian General, John de Chastelain at Áras an Uachtaráin. This was a well-deserved recognition by our State of the great work that de Chastelain accomplished during his time in Ireland; as a member of the Mitchell Commission, co-Chair of the Multi Party Talks leading to the Good Friday Agreement; but more especially as the man who oversaw the decommissioning of paramilitary weapons at the end of the Troubles.
This award is given annually to 10 members of the Irish Diaspora who made a sustained contribution to Ireland’s welfare. If ever a person deserved the medal, it is de Chastelain. His Irish roots comes from his Irish-American mother, Marion Elizabeth Walsh, who was originally from New Jersey. She worked in British intelligence during the war. In the post war period, one of her work colleagues in Washington turned out to be a Soviet Spy, namely Kim Philby. Her grandfather had emigrated from Ireland to the United States
John is, at heart, essentially a military man. His career started with military College in the city of Kingston, Ontario. He was subsequently commissioned into the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, a regiment named after Princess Patricia, the daughter of the Duke of Connaught, who was Governor General of Canada at the outbreak of war in 1914.
He served in the Regiment in a number of capacities in Canada, Germany and Cyprus. In 1989, he was promoted to the rank of General and named Chief of the Defence Staff by then Prime Minister, Brian Mulroney. He fulfilled this role during the end of the Cold War, the events at OKA (a dispute between the town of OKA and the Mohawk tribe), the First Gulf War, and the beginning of the Balkan wars. In early 1993, John retired from the military and was appointed Canada’s Ambassador to the USA, taking over the post shortly before Bill Clinton was sworn in as President. A year later, after a change of government in Canada, he was returned to Canada’s armed forces as Chief of the Defence Staff again, to fill out the remainder of his successor’s term, which was due to finish at the end of December 1995.
In 1995, the former US Senator George Mitchell was appointed by the Irish and British Governments to chair the Mitchell Commission. which was established to examine how the issue of decommissioning could be resolved so that political talks in the North could get under way. With an American in the chair, some Unionist politicians asked for a counterbalance with a figure from the Commonwealth. John, with his military background, aptly fitted the bill. To have an uneven number in the Commission, the former Finnish Prime Minister Harri Holkeri was added.
There were fears at the time that the Republican movement might have difficulties with a former Canadian Chief of Staff, whose family had a British intelligence background. The Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds, dealt with these fears head on and after assurances from the Canadian Prime Minister, Jean Chrétien, simply insisted on de Chastelain’s appointment. It was a decisive move from Reynolds which would reap rewards later. Reynolds had no reverse gear and in this case, it served him and Ireland very well. As far as Albert was concerned, de Chastelain was a straight shooter and that is all he cared.
The Mitchell Commission duly reported, with their six principles of non-violence. These were important but another finding, that inclusive political talks would not take place if prior decommissioning was demanded, helped get Prime Minister John Major off that particular hook. The Commission advised that decommissioning of paramilitary weapons was more likely to occur once constructive talks were underway. The Governments accepted the report. The three members of the Mitchell Commission, including John were then appointed to co-chair the talks at Castle Buildings in Belfast.
I remember during the Talks that there was always an air of mystery about John de Chastelain. As one would expect, the three co-Chairs were studied and analysed by the two governments to ascertain what were their personal views on matters relating to the conflict. While Mitchell and Holkerri were relatively easy to read, John always kept his reserve. Neither ourselves nor the British ever managed to decode what the General was thinking on any particular issue. He was professional and correct in all his dealings, while still being friendly and approachable but never gave anything away. His military training served him well.
The Talks ended in success and the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement was reached on April 10, 1998. It was a great triumph. However, a number of difficult problems were still unresolved, including reform of the police, the reform of the judicial system etc., but the most problematic was the question of paramilitary arms. It had been fudged in the GFA.
A new International Commission under General de Chastelain was established to deal with decommissioning, which was badly eroding confidence in the Unionist community in the Peace Process. The issue of Republican arms was highly emotive in certain areas of the North. In those places, you could literally see the signs of resistance, written on the walls, “Not a bullet, not an ounce”. While the issue was of limited military value, the Republican movement could replenish arms using its contacts in the USA, it was all about sincerity and respect. Privately, as in public, there was resolute stone walling, and the division between Sinn Fein and the IRA was used to frustrate any attempts by the two Governments at exercising pressure.
However, John de Chastelain and his Commission persisted. He was meanwhile developing good personal relations with the representatives of the paramilitary organisations. They admired his direct style. They considered themselves part of an army and could see the professionalism in de Chastelain. There were so many twists and turns of the decommissioning story; the failure of initiatives; interminable meeting, both public and private etc., that it would take a book to describe all of them. However, John de Chastelain and his Commission (which included Retired Brigadier Tauno Nieminen of Finland and US State Department official Andrew Sens) patiently kept that issue alive.
A number of events greatly strengthened the General’s personal standing with both Republican and Loyalist figures. The most public example was de Chastelain’s refusal to succumb to pressure from the two Governments, especially from PM Blair, to reveal any details of an act of decommissioning in 2003. There was hell to pay but the General continued to insist that he had given his word and felt honour bound to keep it. The media increased the pressure and demanded information, but the General kept his word and refused to provide any details. This precipitated a crisis at Stormont and David Trimble duly resigned as First Minister.
The subsequent elections brought Sinn Féin and the DUP into leadership positions in their communities. The rest is history and the unlikely pairing of Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness emerged.
While it could be argued that the events of 9/11 in the United States made decommissioning inevitable, the fact that General de Chastelain had build up trust and confidence made the task much easier. I was recently in the company of former Republican figures in Belfast. They all had good words to say about the General, whom they found forthright but straight and honourable. It was the same with Loyalists.
It was only after my appointment as Irish Ambassador to Canada that myself and my wife Patricia got to know John and his wife MaryAnn (nee Laverty) personally. They were our neighbours and friends in the suburb of Rockcliffe. He is a very warm human being with a huge interest and knowledge of Ireland and, in particular, the politics in the North. He became a champion for integrated education and has provided advice on the Northern Ireland peace process to governments working to end conflicts in the Philippines, Nepal and Colombia. This year the General, lectured students of International Studies at Yale University on his experiences.
Given the extraordinary life and experiences that John de Chastelain has enjoyed, I once asked him if he would consider writing his autobiography. He politely declined, stating that much of what he learned throughout his career was provided to him in confidence. He could never break his word to those who had entrusted their secrets to him. Also, once something was committed to paper, there was always a danger of an unforeseen disclosure. It is no wonder the paramilitaries trusted him.
In the end, John de Chastelain will go down in Irish history as being instrumental in helping to remove the spectre of paramilitary arms from Irish political life, a seemingly hopeless task during the Troubles. He has done our country some service. At a time when the uncertainty around Brexit threatens our hard-won peace, it is appropriate that we honour de Chastelain.
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