Leading Article: Power-sharing, not decomissioning, will decide Ulster's future

WHEN THE political history of this week is written, it will not be Cherie's baby or Ken's candidacy that is remembered; rather, at least if the members of the Ulster Unionist Council vote yes next week, historians will be praising the successful completion of Senator George Mitchell's review of the Good Friday Agreement. Yesterday, David Trimble spoke out directly in favour of the compromise on decommissioning which he will be recommending to his party, saying that he was confident that "we have here the mechanism that will achieve that". We are already getting used to hearing such positive expressions of trust in the good faith of the IRA from Mr Trimble, but the importance of this development cannot be overstated. This is FW de Klerk coming to trust Nelson Mandela, it's Ronald Reagan working on disarmament with Mikhail Gorbachev.

Senator Mitchell's contribution to this process is a quintessential example of the art of deal-making, something Washington politicians, with their experience of continual legislative gridlock, must get plenty of chances to practice. Looking forward, beyond the establishment of a power-sharing executive at Stormont, to its actual workings, we can see that Northern Ireland's politicians, too, will have to get used to working fruitfully with their sworn opponents. The first action of the Assembly, which could have power transferred to it within days of the Unionists voting to accept the Mitchell deal, will be to appoint members of the executive. There will be ministers from the Unionists, from the SDLP, from Sinn Fein, and even two from Ian Paisley's DUP sharing out portfolios among themselves.

The day power-sharing commences will also see the appointment of an "interlocutor" from the IRA to liaise with Canadian General John de Chastelain's commission on disarmament. Opponents of the Mitchell deal point out that as Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein is already a representative of the republican movement to that commission, and no weapons have yet been handed over, there is no guarantee that IRA disarmament will follow this new appointment. These critics fear that once the executive has got underway, and the cross- border bodies have been staffed and begun operation, it is unlikely that a reluctance of the IRA to hand over its guns will lead to the promised suspension of the Assembly.

On the other hand, the fuss that would accompany the complete failure to hand in any weapons at all would deprive Sinn Fein of credibility, and the even worse situation of the IRA setting off a bomb somewhere would lead to the almost certain eviction of its political representatives from the executive. A beneficial consequence of giving Sinn Fein a place in the government of Northern Ireland would be to put paid forever to the strategy of "the ballot box in one hand and the Armalite in the other".

Although decommissioning has come to be a totem for Unionists of the republican commitment to peace and democratic politics, this is partly due to there not having been any other available measurement. Once Sinn Fein ministers begin to take responsibility for, say, housing or education or industry in Northern Ireland, there will be new issues to absorb the attention of the politically engaged. And if, against the obvious impediments, Mr Trimble and Mr Adams continue to work in the spirit of trust they seem to have established, their example could herald a welcome new age in Ulster.