In public appearances in the past he was a master of what was then Provospeak, a tortured dialogue of whining complaint and self-righteousness. But privately he was capable of dropping the green screen and talking realpolitik. And so, after some polite reminiscing, I asked my straight-talking acquaintance what would happen about the decommissioning of IRA weapons. Would the Provos start handing up some guns and Semtex? "Not an ounce," he quickly replied. "We won't give up anything. It is not, not going to happen."
Why, I wondered, were they so adamant? "That would be surrender and we have not been defeated. It is just not going to happen," he said. What about the rumours that the IRA might blow up some old weapons and explosives somewhere in the South? "Let me repeat myself," he said. "It is not going to happen. I was here in 1969 when our neighbourhoods were attacked and the republicans were running around with nothing to defend the people. People were laughing at us, mocking the IRA because it couldn't defend Catholic neighbourhoods. That will not happen again, and neither are we about to declare a surrender."
It is the latter point that has become an obsession with the IRA. There are many in its ranks who regard Gerry Adams and the politicos with deep suspicion. They have stayed in the mainstream movement to preserve republican unity. The ghost of past republican splits, with all their bloodshed, has provided a strong imperative to hold together. But their loyalty is still conditional. Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness know that better than anybody else.
I don't doubt that in practical, everyday terms the armed struggle has been abandoned. But for appearances' sake the gun will be around for a while yet. That is the reality. I tend to believe the warnings of a dangerous IRA split in the event of immediate decommissioning. There is still a sizeable body in the ranks of the IRA that would happily return to war if given the nod of approval from on high.
So far Adams and McGuinness have managed to outmanoeuvre the hawks. The political negotiations were prolonged enough to deny the hard men a single issue around which to rally support. Immediate decommissioning would provide that issue. There is a gnawing suspicion on the part of the militarists that the Good Friday deal was an implicit recognition of partition. Agreeing to the principle of Unionist consent denies the logic that provided the justification for the IRA's 30-year war.
But on this political point it was possible for Adams to fudge, as Michael Collins did before him. He could not use Collins's exact words but, as in 1922, the deal essentially promises republicans the "freedom to achieve freedom". It does not declare a timetable for British withdrawal and reunification with the South. By persuading the militarists to settle for less, Adams achieved the most significant political victory of any republican leader in more than a generation. It required courage and stealth, and there were desertions along the way. But he and McGuinness brought the majority of the movement with them.
We know the moral answer. If you truly believe in peace, give up your guns and bombs. If you accept the primacy of politics, then keep within the Mitchell principles and hand over the weapons. That is the moral imperative. But let us be honest here. This process has never been about a strict moral interpretation of the situation. If it had been, then prisoners guilty of the most horrible crimes would not be walking free before their time.
This is a peace that rewards the perpetrator as much as it rewards the victim. That may be profoundly unpleasant, but it is where we are. And to quote from David Trimble's recent speech to his sceptical young Unionists: "We have at all points to respond to the actual situation we are in. You can't start from an imagined or idealised position. You have to start from where you are in terms of reality." Reality can be a damned unpleasant place if you have lost a family member in the conflict. That is true for nationalists as well as Unionists.
Mr Trimble's dilemma mirrors that of Mr Adams. He is not the absolute master of his own group. The Nobel Prize has raised his international standing, but I can't imagine it will make much difference in the cold meeting halls of the Moy or Castlederg.
David Trimble is a man under immense strain. It is silly to characterise his stance on decommissioning as "typical Unionist intransigence" simply because over the past three decades we have become accustomed to Unionist intransigence. This is different. The man has a serious problem.
I remember a moderate Unionist assembly man telling me a few months back: "I'll stick with David all the way; I will sit down with Sinn Fein but only if there is decommissioning." The problem is not confined to the backwoodsmen or the bigots, who never had any stomach for the process in any case.
There are people who want the process to work, but whose electoral constituency demands decommissioning. I am convinced that Trimble and those close to him wish this problem would simply disappear. They surely know that setting up an executive and binding Sinn Fein into the process is the best guarantee against a return to violence. But without their supporters they are lame ducks.
And so we come back to the problem - for Adams and Trimble - of their supporters and what compromise, if any, would be acceptable to them. The only way to find a way out is to do some serious talking.
The decommissioning problem must be Tony Blair's immediate political priority. One possibility is to convene talks in Belfast involving all the parties who are signatories to the Good Friday agreement. It may not be possible to replicate the atmosphere that produced the agreement but there is surely nothing to lose by bringing all sides together under one roof and keeping them there until some formula has been worked out.
At the moment it feels as though we are sleepwalking towards the collapse of the deal. I think a solution can be found. But it is time that pressure was applied on the divided parties.
Where no compromise appears possible, the process demands that we arrive at a "fudge". That is almost certainly what will happen: a form of words that allows Unionists to feel more secure, and republicans to feel they have not surrendered.
The political dynamics of a divided society such as Northern Ireland dictate that traditional concepts of "good" and "bad", of an imperative morality get thrown out of the window. You negotiate with your enemies, with the ones you hate most, precisely because without them there is no settlement. Let nobody pretend that the Good Friday agreement was a moral victory for anyone. It was a victory of pragmatism. What it achieved was to lay the basis for a society in which politics is not a ritual of hate.
We are still a long way from that high ground. The tribalists will howl for a few years yet. But it does feel good to sit and write of Ulster with something like optimism. It is strange and unaccustomed territory for a natural pessimist. But peace is no longer just an imagined country. It is one that becomes more real with every passing day.Reuse content