Leading article: Mr Trimble and Mr Adams have both learned a hard truth

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The Independent Culture
WE ARE not there yet. There is no shortage of reasons for pessimism, for anyone who is that way inclined. And yet, it would be churlish not to acknowledge the deep significance of the changes now taking place in Northern Ireland.

There has been no champagne moment (even the signing of the Good Friday agreement was cautiously received, most notably in Northern Ireland itself), nor is there likely to be. The scepticism runs too deep. Even now, everything consists of subtexts within subtexts.

Sinn Fein's declaration yesterday that disarmament is "an essential part of the peace process" is seen by some as just a bucket of words. The statement by David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionists, that the new assembly can be formed "if there is a genuine and meaningful response" by the IRA to the disarmament commission includes a very big if. The IRA's apparent willingness to appoint a representative to the disarmament commission could prove to be yet more verbal sand in the eyes.

None the less, there are objective indications of change. This year, seven people have died in political violence in Ulster; a few years ago, the figure was 10 times that and more. The relations between the two sides, too, have been transformed. In the lead-up to the Good Friday peace agreement, Mr Trimble and the Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams refused even to meet. Now, there are constant discussions between the two sides; this week's statements have been drafted by mutual consultation.

The widespread yearning for peace cannot simply be put to one side. The strength of the compromises that have been hammered out is that they have been overseen by the most unlikely characters. John Hume's historic role as a conciliator is clear to all. But the behaviour of the more intransigent figures in Ulster politics has played a key role.Only a few years ago, no serious commentator would have staked money on Mr Trimble arguing for compromise. The fact that it is Mr Trimble who has been at the helm throughout this period has, however, helped to keep things on track. The rebellions continue; but Mr Trimble, who is no liberal pushover, makes it clear that there is no alternative. He has helped his fellow-Protestants to understand that compromise can be a badge of honour, not an admission of defeat.

The dogged determination of outsiders - including the remarkable American mediator, George Mitchell, and the Canadian General John de Chastelain - has played a remarkable part, too. We can expect more bad-news headlines before this story is over. There will be protests from the diehards, last- minute hitches, and accusations of bad faith. If things go badly, there will be more bombs. But that does not change the underlying truth: gradually, things are getting better. The next generation will look back to the divisions of today - let alone the bloodshed of a decade ago - with the same bemusement as is felt by Lebanese looking back on their long and grisly civil war.

It is notable that David Trimble and Gerry Adams do not spend their time publicly seeking to score points off each other. Hardline Unionists complained yesterday of "total capitulation". But both Mr Trimble and Mr Adams understand that the humiliation of one side will only backfire on the other. That wisdom itself deserves to be celebrated.

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