Leading Article: A quantum leap has taken place in Northern Ireland

THERE WILL continue to be endless agonising about the peace process in Northern Ireland. Certainly, there are more than enough reasons for pessimism. For outsiders, there is a sense of hopelessness in watching participants seemingly determined to refuse the best chance of peace that we have ever had.

But this is not the time for despair. However easy it may be to find reasons to feel depressed at the prospects, it is more important to see what has been achieved.

Above all, there is an aspiration for change. The widespread pessimism in Northern Ireland is combined with an explicit desire to live in a world where things would be different. That wish is in itself a powerful factor. The politicians who have made brave compromises have done so partly in response to the pressures in a society where enough violence is finally recognised to be enough.

The philosophical gulf between the two sides remains enormous. Even here, however, there are the glimmerings of mutual understanding. Gerry Adams and David Trimble both know that inflexibility is not necessarily personal. They understand that there is a constituency out there which may be even more unforgiving than their immediate opposite number seems to be. In other words, both sides know that the room for manoeuvre is genuinely limited. That understanding, in itself, implies the knowledge of the necessity for compromise, at least somewhere down the line.

The talk of seismic shifts this week is more than just Downing Street spin to keep a dying peace process alive. The head of the decommissioning body in Northern Ireland, General John de Chastelain, is remarkably upbeat in his report published yesterday, with reference to the "clear intention" to decommission arms.

The problem of "sequencing" - finding a way past the apparently insoluble problem of timing, where neither side wants to be seen to jump first - still lends itself to fudge. Fudge has become a dirty word in the lexicon of Northern Ireland politics. In reality, fudge offers enormous possibilities, in that it implies an element of trust on both sides.

Trust that has been lacking for all these years. It is lacking still. But the two men who only a year ago could not bear to look at one another, let alone shake each other's hands, are now partners in an extraordinary project. Both of these men are acutely aware of the historic responsibility they bear.

Much bad news is yet to come. It would be little short of a miracle if the Orange Order march at Drumcree tomorrow passes off without any violence. As in previous years, the defiant confrontation means that an explosion of some kind seems almost inevitable.

But we must not forget how extraordinary it is that we have got this far. Two years ago, it would have seemed impossible to contemplate David Trimble, the intransigent Unionist, sitting together with representatives of Sinn Fein. Equally, an explicit suggestion from those connected with the IRA that the gun should be removed from Northern Irish politics for ever would have seemed in the realm of fantasy.

However much mutual recrimination we still face, that progress should be welcomed. In real terms, Sinn Fein has offered to ask the IRA to render all its weapons unusable within less than a year. In Northern Irish terms, this is a quantum leap, and should be recognised as such. One can understand that David Trimble still feels concerned that the start of this decommissioning - at the end of this year - is too late. But one reason why the Unionists have been so disconcerted by the offer is precisely because they see that it changes the political landscape.

For the moment, the political wind is behind Sinn Fein, who have shown themselves able to make concessions that nobody expected. The initiative lies clearly in the Unionists' hands, divided as they are. But Sinn Fein could gain diplomatic brownie points at little additional cost. Having taken the step in principle of publicly announcing that weapons can be given up, it has already gone well beyond conventional dogma. Once the willingness in principle is there, the date is, in comparison, a mere detail.

In that respect, Sinn Fein has everything to gain, and nothing to lose, from going one step further, by persuading the IRA to give up some of its weapons with immediate effect. Not in response to pressure from the Unionists, which has always been the ultimate republican no-no. The Unionists have been so wrong-footed by the latest offer that they are able to put little pressure on Sinn Fein. Instead, by making it possible for the decommissioning of arms to take immediate effect, the leaders of Sinn Fein would find themselves in the unwonted position of presenting themselves as genuine statesmen, not just as terrorists reformed.

The Unionists would be doubly confused. But the peace process would be given the final boost that it clearly needs. It may still seem a step too far. But many of the changes in the past year, or even in the past week, have also seemed a step too far. In the end, it is a matter of belief. Northern Ireland must never look back.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence