Leading Article: It's time for some flexibility over arms

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DEADLINES COME and deadlines go, as every journalist doth know. The trick is to know which are the real ones and which are designed simply to prod the procrastinator. This Saturday's deadline in the Irish peace process is of the prodding kind.

The Good Friday agreement set a date of 31 October for the appointment of a power-sharing executive in Northern Ireland, and of a North-South ministerial council to provide the all-Ireland dimension to the North's future. But if they are not set up by the witching hour on Hallowe'en, the earth will not open up and return Northern Ireland to the nightmare of bloodshed. The date was never an absolute commitment.

In any case, the executive of the Northern Ireland Assembly would not assume its powers of government until next year, and meanwhile David Trimble, the First Minister, and Seamus Mallon, his deputy, can begin work on the form of North-South arrangements.

But the peace process will inevitably lose momentum, and the sense of events moving forwards has been an important invisible force pushing the parties beyond the trenches they inhabited for so long.

It is pointless to point the finger of blame for this loss of momentum. If the IRA could bring itself to hand in one rusty Armalite, it would be a magical short-cut through the next five or six stages of the peace process. It would not diminish the IRA's capacity to wage terrorist war, but it would be a historic gesture. It would be a start to the decommissioning of weapons, which has now been erected by Mr Trimble as the absolute obstacle to further progress.

So why does the IRA not do it? What is holding the republicans back from giving the peace process its biggest boost since Good Friday? Well, precisely the same symbolism that makes Mr Trimble insist on it.

The Irish Republican Army, in its delusion that it is an army, regards the handing in of its weapons - even to a "neutral" international commission - as a surrender. This is the mentality that the Good Friday agreement, and the momentum of the broader peace process, are helping to break down.

The danger is that, by confronting the republicans on their most difficult symbolic issue, Mr Trimble reinforces rather than weakens that mentality.

The Unionists' hard line on decommissioning makes no sense, because a token hand-over of weapons or verifiable destruction of Semtex would not reduce the IRA's ability to bomb, kill and maim. It would be a political statement, and that statement has already been made by Gerry Adams, leader of the IRA's political wing, when he said violence was over and done with. It may be that the start of disarmament ought to happen, but it is unwise in politics to insist on something that is highly unlikely to come about.

Remember that it was John Major's insistence on decommissioning which ended the first IRA ceasefire. Tony Blair certainly does. One of the most salient features of the Good Friday agreement is that it specifically did not commit the parties to decommissioning before the setting-up of the Northern Ireland executive - or, indeed, ever.

By investing some of the capital of his Nobel Peace Prize, Mr Trimble no doubt hopes to focus attention on the ways in which republicans can give further and tangible evidence that they are turning away from violence. But his party, which voted at the weekend not to allow Mr Adams on to the executive if the IRA fails to hand in weapons, has tied him to the weapons issue. Yet Mr Trimble knows that, under the agreement, Mr Adams and Martin McGuinness can take their places on the executive provided that they sign in triplicate the forms renouncing violence. By attempting to block them, the Unionists risk going back in their traditional posture of saying No. Mr Trimble should now let the decommissioning issue lie, while ensuring that all the pressure is on Messrs Adams and McGuinness to show that they are trying to break down the IRA mentality that wants to hold on to the guns.