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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Arts and Entertainment
James singer Tim Booth
latitude 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Lee says: 'I never, ever set out to offend, but it can be an accidental by-product'
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe judges were wowed by the actress' individual cooking style
Arts and Entertainment
Nicholas says that he still feels lucky to be able to do what he loves, but that there is much about being in a band he hates
musicThere is much about being in a band that he hates, but his debut album is suffused with regret
Arts and Entertainment
The singer, who herself is openly bisexual, praised the 19-year-old sportsman before launching into a tirade about the upcoming Winter Olympics

books
Arts and Entertainment
music
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Cryer and Ashton Kutcher in the eleventh season of Two and a Half Men

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

film
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman as Doctor Who and Clara behind the scenes

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cheery but half-baked canine caper: 'Pudsey the dog: The movie'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce leads the MTV VMA Awards 2014 nominations with eight

music
Arts and Entertainment
Live from your living room: Go People perform at a private home in Covent Garden

theatre
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

    The 'scroungers’ fight back

    The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
    Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

    Fireballs in space

    Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
    A Bible for billionaires

    A Bible for billionaires

    Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
    Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

    Paranoid parenting is on the rise

    And our children are suffering because of it
    For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

    Magna Carta Island goes on sale

    Yours for a cool £4m
    Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn
    Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

    Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

    Meet the man who doesn't want to go down in history as the country's last Scottish Secretary
    Legoland Windsor's master model-makers reveal the tricks of their trade (including how to stop the kids wrecking your Eiffel Tower)

    Meet the people who play with Lego for a living

    They are the master builders: Lego's crack team of model-makers, who have just glued down the last of 650,000 bricks as they recreate Paris in Windsor. Susie Mesure goes behind the scenes
    The 20 best days out for the summer holidays: From Spitfires to summer ferry sailings

    20 best days out for the summer holidays

    From summer ferry sailings in Tyne and Wear and adventure days at Bear Grylls Survival Academy to Spitfires at the Imperial War Museum Duxford and bog-snorkelling at the World Alternative Games...
    Open-air theatres: If all the world is a stage, then everyone gets in on the act

    All the wood’s a stage

    Open-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
    Rand Paul is a Republican with an eye on the world

    Rupert Cornwell: A Republican with an eye on the world

    Rand Paul is laying out his presidential stall by taking on his party's disastrous record on foreign policy
    Self-preservation society: Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish

    Self-preservation society

    Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish
    Generation gap opens a career sinkhole

    Britons live ever longer, but still society persists in glorifying youth

    We are living longer but considered 'past it' younger, the reshuffle suggests. There may be trouble ahead, says DJ Taylor