Viewpoint: IMC report shows how far we've come
The latest IMC report on progress towards demilitarisation and a reduction in paramilitary activity should please both the public and the authorities in Belfast and London.
The army is ahead of schedule in many of its targets, and not only has the Provisional IRA "abandoned terrorism and violence", but the main loyalist paramilitary organisations are apparently scaling down their activities.
The picture is not unblemished, as the IMC admits. Dissident republicans continue to pose a threat, both to the security forces and the community at large. Although they lack the capacity to mount a sustained campaign, members remain committed to violence and have undertaken attacks - evidenced by the finding of an improvised mortar in Lurgan last April, for which it is believed the CIRA was responsible.
In this report, the IMC concludes that since loyalist paramilitaries do not pose a "terrorist-type risk" to the security forces, nor are they planning a terrorist campaign, they do not threaten the normalisation process. But while the UVF "appears to have started to address the question of weapons", since its statement of intent last May, the UDA has not matched this progress, due to "lack of organisational coherence" . In other words, splits in the ranks in south Antrim, where a policeman was shot in July, have made the organisation even more dysfunctional.
This has an important bearing on the October 9 deadline set for a start to UDA decommissioning by Social Development Minister Margaret Ritchie, when she threatens to remove £1.2m funding from a UPRG-sponsored initiative in deprived loyalist communities. There is no indication from the IMC or the PSNI that the UDA is ready to make a start on removing weapons so, unless there is a sudden change of heart, the money will run out. No one wants to penalise needy families, so the minister should be considering how to divert the threatened funds to the many good causes in loyalist areas that deserve support.
Despite the standstill on decommissioning and sporadic dissident republican activity, the normalisation programme continues apace, with Secretary of State Shaun Woodward referring to "dramatic changes" over the past two years - including two peaceful Twelfths. The IMC even urges the PSNI to speed up the "defortification" of police stations, to improve relations with the public.
When the peace process began in earnest, more than 10 years ago, few would have predicted that the Pope would be holding up Northern Ireland as an inspirational example. Yet that is what Pope Benedict told the new Irish ambassador in his welcoming address. We had shown that conflict, "no matter how ingrained", can be overcome, he said, thanks to international support, determination by the British and Irish governments and the readiness of people to forgive. No more proof is needed that times have changed.