A plea to the Ulster unionists - give George Mitchell a chance

The IRA would almost certainly be first to rejoice if Mr Trimble did refuse to take part in the review
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IT'S ODD, but the most significant observation made by Ken Maginnis, the Ulster Unionists' security spokesman, during his intemperate and headline- provoking attack on the Northern Ireland Secretary yesterday was also the most calm and least noticeable. In the course of a litany of Mo Mowlam's character faults, which was devastating even by the standards of Northern Ireland's political rhetoric, Mr Maginnis stressed, almost in passing, the extreme importance of the forthcoming review of the now wholly fragile peace process which Senator George Mitchell is due to begin in Belfast next week.

He made it sound like no more than a platitude and, in any other context, it might have been just that. Coming as it did on the eve of today's critical meeting of his party's Northern Ireland assembly members, it amounts to a fairly clear signal that, for all the pressures he - and, it is fair to guess, his leader David Trimble - face, they do not want to boycott the review if they can help it.

Whether they can hold this line today, against an increasingly restive party and the breathtaking provocations of the Provisional IRA, is another matter. The Provisionals' murder and torture of 22-year-old taxi driver Charles Bennett; the bungled attempt to import fresh arms into Northern Ireland and the hasty - but wholly unconvincing - disavowal by the IRA; and the unspeakable "exclusion orders" meted out to six teenagers; simply do not look like the behaviour of an organisation committed to peace and democracy. In the case of the Bennett murder Ms Mowlam decided, after long deliberation, to accept the gruesome distinction drawn by the IRA between murderous actions carried out against "the British state" and those against members of what it calls, with unbelievable hubris, "its own community" in order to deny that it has breached the ceasefire.

In the case of the arms find, they simply pretended that it had nothing to do with them. But these lawless expulsions of young teenagers from the nationalist community look very much like, and may well have been, a direct taunt to the British government to show how much the IRA now thinks it can get away with in the wake of the decision not to suspend the releases of republican prisoners.

Against such a background, it isn't too hard to sympathise with Jeffrey Donaldson, the most convincing of Mr Trimble's hardliners, when he hinted at disengagement yesterday. Tony Blair returns to his desk today to find the level of mistrust - genuine as well as feigned - among Unionist politicians in Northern Ireland at probably its worst since Good Friday 1998. It will therefore be very hard, always supposing he thinks it worth trying, for Mr Trimble to persuade his party not to boycott the Mitchell review, widely welcomed when it was announced, when he meets them today.

However, Mr Maginnis's instincts are right. It is worth trying. The reasons for staying in the process are better than those for walking out.

The first is that the republicans - always tempted by the possibility of the Ulster Unionists walking out of the process (an outcome which has been prevented almost entirely by Mr Trimble's courageous leadership) - would almost certainly be the first to rejoice if they did refuse to take part in the review. They would then be able to argue, at least among some nationalists, that it was Mr Trimble and not the republicans who were frustrating a political settlement. Much better to expose the republicans' hypocrisy, if that is what they are convinced it is, to Mr Mitchell - a man almost uniquely qualified to put it to the test.

If Mr Mitchell becomes convinced either that the republicans are no longer sincere about real peace or, alternatively, that Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness are sincere but have lost control of their membership, then that amounts to a convincing case to put before the court of international opinion, especially the Irish -American section of it.

Nor should the Ulster Unionist hardliners imagine that by boycotting the review they will simply precipitate a government crisis, see off Mo Mowlam and provoke an entirely fresh start. Downing Street was at pains yesterday to dismiss reports suggesting that it had nothing to do with Dr Mowlam's decision to regard the ceasefire as still effective, and was happy to "leave her swinging in the wind". Mr Maginnis made a lot of this in his BBC interview. But the denial on this occasion was utterly convincing. It is simply not credible to imagine that the Prime Minister, deeply committed as he is to a lasting settlement in Northern Ireland, would suddenly play low internal politics on the issue. It is genuinely ludicrous to imagine Dr Mowlam took her critical decision on whether to operate sanctions against Sinn Fein last week without close and intense consultation with Tony Blair.

That doesn't at all mean, of course, that there is nothing for Mr Blair to do on his return. The Sinn Fein leadership will have to be convinced that continued flouting of the spirit, if not the letter, of Good Friday, risks the credibility of the whole process - not to mention the republicans' recent electoral progress in the South. And someone trusted by the Unionists is going to have start persuading them that Chris Patten's report on the future of the RUC, now expected around September 9 or 10, is not the unadulterated nationalist tract which some of the leaks - wrongly according to a number of officials - have depicted it as being. Reform of the RUC is a crucial building block in the political process; there is a widespread assumption in London and Dublin that the republicans will not seriously take steps on decommissioning arms until they see the Patten report.

There may be some virtue in the cynical argument that Unionist protests will help cement support for the reforms among nationalists. But Mr Trimble will need to be assured privately, first that there is something in the reforms for his own side, and second, that they will not simply be enacted wholesale but step-by-step, in parallel with further political progress including decommissioning.

It is possible that none of this will prevent a Unionist boycott. It is much more possible than it was even two months ago that we are about to enter a kind of deep freeze in which there is no political progress but no return to actual war either. That would not be meltdown; it would mean that at least some of the gains made so far have been pocketed by the Northern Ireland people. But it will not lighten hearts either.

Continued direct rule, moreover, is probably in the interests of no side. For the Unionists, for example, it means the loss of their cherished Stormont assembly, at least in the medium term. It would still be much better if the Unionists decided to give the process - boosted as it will be by the arrival of George Mitchell - one more chance today. That would be as much in their own interests as those of the Northern Ireland people as a whole.