John de Chastelain’s name keeps popping up in speculation about who might be Canada’s next Governor General. I have no idea if Canada’s former top soldier is really being considered, but the way I see it, if the general is willing, there’s no question the job should be his.
Some Canadians will remember him from his years as chief of defence staff, though he was a far less in-your-face figure than one of his successors in the role. A few might recall that he helped settle the Oka standoff without bloodshed. His leadership during the ugly 1992 Somalia affair was viewed as flawed, but that hardly overshadows his other accomplishments in uniform. He was also briefly Canada’s ambassador in Washington.
But even that impressive record is dry stuff compared with de Chastelain’s retirement project: for the past decade and a half, he has applied himself with unquestioned integrity and tireless determination to the heavy task of overseeing the destruction of the arsenals of Northern Ireland’s fighting factions.
From the outset many doubted it could be done. Indeed, de Chastelain’s Independent International Commission on Decommissioning faced many setbacks along the way. But they prevailed. Under “the general’s” trusted eye, between 2001 and 2005, the notorious Provisional IRA rendered “beyond use” its stockpile of Libyan-supplied guns and bombs and ammunition. Other armed groups followed, up to the decommissioning early this year of the weapons cache of the once murderous Ulster Defence Association.
Former British prime minister Tony Blair praised de Chastelain, along with his fellow commissioners, Andy Sens of the U.S. and Tauno Nieminen of Finland, “for their authoritative and effective oversight of this process.”
Ted Kennedy credited de Chastelain for his “leadership and patience.” That was in a speech the late, legendary U.S. senator gave at University of Ulster, in Derry, Northern Ireland—on Jan. 8, 1998. Little did Kennedy know how much more patience de Chastelain, then just three years into the job, would need before he was done.
John Hume, the former leader of Northern Ireland’s Social Democratic and Labour Party, in his speech on accepting the 1998 Nobel Peace Prize, which he shared with John Trimble of the Ulster Unionist Party, paid tribute to de Chastelain by putting him on a short list of key figures who “so clearly facilitated the negotiation” of peace.
Do we really have another contender of that sort of accomplishment? A few commentators have suggested that at 70 he might be too old. Not by the look of his recent workload. And it’s not as if he’s some dour soldier who would be downer in Rideau Hall. He plays bagpipes and paints in oils.