Leading article: Mr Trimble must compromise again to avoid a deadlock

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ALL POLITICAL roads in Ulster lead back to decommissioning. There is a good reason for this, of course. The obvious sticking point in the Northern Ireland peace process has remained unresolved since it was magnificently fudged in the Good Friday Agreement last year. It is worth restating in all its bald simplicity: the Provisional IRA refuses to give up its arms before its political representatives in Sinn Fein take their place in the Northern Ireland Executive, in which David Trimble, the Unionist leader, will be First Minister. But Mr Trimble and his colleagues refuse to contemplate sitting in an administration with Sinn Fein until the IRA has given up those very arms. This logical and political conundrum has been revisited many times since the Good Friday Agreement. It has provoked harsh words and some tense negotiations, but it has never been resolved. Substantial political progress has been made by fudging and postponing the question.

As we approach the deadline of 30 June set by Tony Blair and the Irish Prime Minister, Bertie Ahern, the option remains to put off the reckoning once again, perhaps until after the marching season is over. It is a tempting idea. The deadline was, after all, quite arbitrary, so a postponement would buy yet more time. But there is nothing to suggest that such a move at this stage would yield much of a dividend. Indeed, the more the peace process falls into a state of drift, the more it runs the risk of becoming a parody of itself. What momentum the peace process has left will not be stimulated by, say, arbitrarily sacking Mo Mowlam, as Mr Trimble suggests; she is, after all, only carrying out the Prime Minister's policy (however, it may make sense to thank her for her fine work and shift her in the summer reshuffle, bringing in someone more palatable to the Unionists). But Mr Trimble is not addressing the fundamentals - and these will only be restored by one of the parties making a historic compromise.

The IRA should have begun to disarm last year to fulfil the spirit of the agreement and make political life easier for Mr Trimble. It didn't, of course. It did not make even a token gesture. The punishment beatings have gone on, even as convicted terrorists were granted early release from jail, a distasteful affair. If the IRA had made even modest progress in disarmament, we would not now be facing the disintegration of what all the parties agree is the best chance for peace that Ireland has seen in generations. We would not have to listen to the more than faintly menacing words of Gerry Adams that we now have a "life and death" situation. We would instead, as the Prime Minister has remarked, have gone a long way to laying to rest one of the last examples of religious conflict in the world. The situation is far from precisely parallel, but it is still a chastening thought that the Kosovo Liberation Army is, under conditions of vastly greater duress, handing in its guns at a rather faster rate than the Provisional IRA seems able to manage.

Given this, then, the only way out is for Mr Trimble to take the first historic step and compromise. Dr Mowlam has talked about the parties proceeding painfully slowly over the next few days, taking "little steps". This may be understating what Mr Trimble has to do. For him to invite Gerry Adams or Martin McGuinness into a government led by him will dismay many decent, ordinary Unionist people, split his party and leave him in an appallingly exposed position. If the IRA then fails to respond within a very short space of time by very substantial disarmament, it will have betrayed moderate Unionism, the Good Friday Agreement and the people it claims to represent. The consequences of that are too awful to contemplate. Peace will certainly have been lost. It will be no good to say that we would not have started on this road from here.