Leading Article: Let's now start to take the gun out of Irish politics

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SO MARTIN McGuinness has been appointed by Sinn Fein to be its representative to deal with the independent international commission on the decommissioning of arms. It is good news, if a little startling for the naive few who believed Sinn Fein's tireless protestations that the IRA was really nothing at all to do with it. The choice of McGuinness is particularly telling, as he has historic and well developed links with the IRA, having been convicted of membership of the organisation in courts in the Republic of Ireland and having been a frequent guest at funerals of IRA men. With his background and seniority in the republican movement, he should prove, at least, a man with whom the leader of the decommissioning body, General de Chastelain, can do business.

The decision to support more actively the decommissioning process comes, of course, shortly after Gerry Adams's declaration that "Sinn Fein believe the violence we have seen must be for all of us now a thing of the past, over, done with and gone". This is the nearest that Sinn Fein's pride may ever get to allowing it to use the phrase "the war is over", as its critics demand. It would, of course, be foolish to do other than welcome these words. But it is also worthwhile exploring the reasons for Sinn Fein's initiatives. Obviously, as with the release of the two Scots Guards, the visit of President Clinton and the parallel emergency sessions of the Irish and British parliaments, there is spin-doctor choreography at work in these coincident events. Clinton, after all, needs to take something of substance back with him to America, and, weakened though he may be by the Lewinsky affair, he is still able to exert influence and pressure on this side of the pond to help him do so.

But, clear as these proximate reasons may be, there are still more fundamental factors at work. Above all, the shock of the murders at Omagh may have influenced Sinn Fein into considering whether it is really part of the peace process to have stashes of guns and explosives sprinkled around the island of Ireland ready for existing and new splinter groups to use (in time, possibly, even against former republican comrades). Sinn Fein will certainly have witnessed another expression of the public mood and decided to position itself to take advantage of that. In the aftermath of Omagh, Sinn Fein will have realised, too, that the unionists - and a much wider range of public opinion than just that represented by David Trimble - could not have tolerated Sinn Fein's participation in the government of Northern Ireland, notwithstanding their apparently sincere denunciation of the bombers of Omagh.

Now that the IRA is that much closer to giving up its arms, Trimble should take part in all-party talks with Sinn Fein about the running of the assembly. He would be right, though, to refuse the symbolic handshake with Adams until some more concrete progress has been made on decommissioning. It will come.

Even at this short distance, we can now see that the atrocity at Omagh has, as some privately, quietly, allowed themselves to hope, produced some good and actually helped the peace process by alienating still further the men and the cause of violence - and done so to the extent that even Sinn Fein could not withstand the momentum. We can only continue to hope that the words of Adams and McGuinness actually lead to action and that we move closer to what Adams is fond of calling "taking the gun out of Irish politics". We still have to cope with the possibility that this could be another false dawn: only last week the IRA baldly declared: "There will be no decommissioning." But the momentum still seems to remain with the peace process, and we should be optimistic for the long run. For once, perhaps, the question "what good can come of this?" has, in the case of Omagh, been positively answered.