The moment was not seized. Should people feel let down?
There will be disappointment. It would have been an historic achievement to set up the Northern Ireland Executive. Had things not been put off yet again, we should now be reflecting on the courage of those involved, rather than pondering another pause. So, if the parties won't agree now, with all the psychological pressure of the anniversary of the Good Friday agreement, when will they? What hope is there that they will not for ever be content to live in the limbo land of agreement without settlement, of ceasefire without disarmament, of progress without movement?
There are reasons to feel hopeful. First, the scale of what is being attempted needs to be borne in mind. The question of the IRA decommissioning its weapons has been fudged time and again. It is where irresistible Unionism meets immovable republicanism. Even a year is a short time to weaken attitudes that have taken centuries to ossify. It may also have been too much to ask during the emotion of the annual commemoration of the 1916 Easter Rising.
Second, the war in the Balkans may have proved to be too much of a distraction for Tony Blair and, especially, Bill Clinton. In 10 days' time they may be able to play a still more active and powerful role.
Third, and most important, the break in the formal talks does not mean that dialogue, thought and imagination have also adjourned. The IRA can and should begin decommissioning now. It seems that it will not. In that case, there is only one way through that can be explored informally between now and the next round of talks. The compromise that could be pursued is for Sinn Fein to join the executive on the explicit promise that the IRA will shortly thereafter begin decommissioning, on a scale and at a speed that is satisfactory to the Unionists. It is, to borrow a phrase, gut-wrenching to ask David Trimble and his community to agree to this, and they should do so only with the most clear and public undertakings and with the shortest gap between words and actions.
Some cause for optimism, then. But delays cannot be indefinite. Tensions will mount during the summer and as the marching season approaches. The power of the referendum results about the agreement, on both sides of the border, will begin to lapse soon. The risk of destabilising atrocities perpetrated by splinter groups persists. The hand of history still rests heavily on the shoulders of the participants. But it will not rest there for ever.Reuse content