Astonishingly, Mr Adams and Mr Trimble share a common aim

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TODAY, 10 MARCH, was supposed to be the day when power was transferred from London to a brand new institution in Belfast, thus opening a new era in which ancient Irish quarrels might move from the streets to a purely political arena.

It hasn't worked out like that, for the unsurprising reason that the old issue of decommissioning remains unresolved. So there has been yet another postponement, with a new deadline set for the end of the month, when the peace process may either move on or fall apart.

Somebody once said that war was 95 per cent tedium and 5 per cent sheer terror. They might have been talking about the peace process, since its history is one of periods of longueur and stasis, interspersed with periods of white-knuckle turmoil.

Most of the deals that have kept it going have been concluded in intensive, last-minute bursts of negotiation involving not just local parties but also the London and Dublin governments, and very often Washington as well.

It seems destined to be like this yet again, for all the experience is that bringing unionism and nationalism together requires a chemical reaction which occurs only when considerable external heat is applied. Finding an accommodation this time will require the application of a fair amount of heat to both David Trimble and Gerry Adams, for at this moment their stances are simply incompatible.

In some ways the positions of the two men can appear as a mirror image. Both are leading their respective movements, republican and unionist, into unprecedented areas. No unionist leader before Trimble even dreamt of having Sinn Fein in government; their traditional aim was to crush republicanism. No pre-Adams republican ever contemplated joining a Northern Ireland government, being instead in the business of tearing it down.

Both leaders are capable of being viewed as men who are personally anxious to make progress, but whose freedom of movement is severely limited by hardliners at their backs. But although there is probably much truth in such portrayals they have, on closer examination, very different problems.

Trimble has at his back a sharply divided unionism, which is both structurally fragmented into half a dozen parties, and confused in its aims. Many unionists voted against the Good Friday agreement and would celebrate its collapse, being temperamentally opposed to a deal on any such lines.

For some of these the decommissioning demand, while ostensibly advanced as a moral issue and a test of democratic commitment, is in fact a socially acceptable way of expressing religious bigotry, or a refusal to contemplate any new form of partnership government.

On top of that comes a layer of traditional Protestant pessimism and cynicism that regards the peace process as a danger rather than an opportunity, or alternatively as just another false dawn.

Within the new assembly the pro- and anti-Trimble unionists are evenly balanced, which means that the leader of the Unionist party must forever watch his back against Paisleyite raids and the danger of defections. The Trimble response to this has been to do little that is audacious, and essentially to proceed at the speed of the slowest ships in his convoy.

On the Catholic side, by contrast, enthusiasm for the peace process remains undimmed and virtually unanimous. Republicans and nationalists, in general, want decommissioning speedily sorted out and the executive speedily set up.

Furthermore, both Dublin and the SDLP have of late significantly shifted their positions and now lean more towards the Trimble position on decommissioning.

There is thus nationalist unity of overall purpose and, at first sight, more flexibility on the arms issue. So why do the republicans keep maintaining that there won't be decommissioning? Since the generality of nationalism appears to be as pragmatic as ever, the answer seems to lie within the IRA.

For some years it seems that, although Adams has been given the go-ahead for his many political innovations, it was always made clear that the issue of decommissioning was the IRA's final redoubt. The word was, "Try new things, yes - but not one bullet, not an ounce."

We know little of the internal machinations of the IRA; but viewed in this light it may be that holding out on decommissioning has been a cement in holding the republican movement together, and pretty well intact, while it has manoeuvred towards politics. If Adams and company judge that decommissioning would now split the movement, then decommissioning will not happen.

At this point the concept of the mirror image appears again, for both Trimble and Adams face the risk of splits in their movements and both look uncomfortably close to the limits of their negotiating positions.

We can see why many supporters of the peace process regard decommissioning as an absolutely noxious issue, since it effectively acts as a tacit rallying- point for hardline unionists and hardline IRA elements. Both, from their completely different standpoints, can use it in their common purpose of attacking the peace process.

With the issue still unresolved, today's target date thus joins the list of missed deadlines. The new late-March target is meant to concentrate minds as the psychological watershed of the first anniversary looms, though there is as yet little reason to believe that this latest postponement will make the negotiation less difficult.

The hurdles are obvious enough, the positive factors less so. The Good Friday agreement not only won multi-party support but, through the referendums, which were strongly approving, it received what might be termed the ultimate democratic endorsement. Thus, while the politicians have yet to reach final accord, it can be argued strongly that the people have spoken.

That was amazing enough for Northern Ireland, but even more amazing, and not always evident, is the fact that David Trimble and Gerry Adams now have a community of interest. They want the same thing, which is to say getting the Good Friday agreement up and running, forming a government and setting up new institutions that will transform the face of Northern Ireland.

They certainly want different things to emerge from the agreement, but for both, the accord itself remains not only an acceptable but also a highly desirable framework for the politics of the future. The existence of that unity of purpose will be worth remembering in the turbulent weeks that lie ahead.

The author was named Correspondent of the Year in the `What the Papers Say' awards earlier this month