On the face of it, the refusal of the Ulster Unionists to accept draft proposals worked out by their leader David Trimble in talks with Sinn Fein, under the deft and persistent tutelage of the former US Senator George Mitchell, is grim news: weeks of hard work come to nothing. The risk is that the historic achievement of the Good Friday agreement may start to unravel; the nightmare, that the gunmen will again step in where the politicians have failed.
But all is not yet lost. What we know may be disheartening. The encouragement lies in what we do not know. It is certain that the IRA was ready to make a conciliatory statement, to liaise with the decommissioning body, and to engage in a "sequencing process" that might lead to the surrender of some of its arms. But we do not know the details of the package, let alone the language of it, nor even whether Mr Trimble accepted it.
This state of affairs may be frustrating - but it could yet be vital if talks as complex, as sensitive and as crucial as these are to succeed. With no document in the public arena, hostages to fortune are avoided. Positions may be shifted and bargains may be struck without loss of face. Such is the essence of negotiation.
Thursday's failure moreover must be seen in context. A great part of the road towards an Irish settlement has already been travelled, an advance which would have been unimaginable just three years ago. Even now, it must be assumed that having signed the Good Friday agreement, unionists and republicans alike want the power-sharing executive to begin to work. But both face obstacles which are, as always, mirror images of each other.
Mr Trimble has to overcome his party's entrenched reluctance to permit Sinn Fein to join the executive before the handover of at least some "actual product". Conversely, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness must persuade the IRA that this physical surrender of weapons is not an act of political surrender as well.
The deadlock was sidestepped in the Good Friday agreement, which made decommissioning an obligation for Sinn Fein, but not a specific condition of its admission into the executive. The latest offer contains concessions from the republican side but, plainly not enough for the majority of unionists with their mantra, "No guns, no government". But its failure to win acceptance does not destroy the impression that, albeit with infinite difficulty, with almost as many steps back as forward, republicans and unionists are still inching towards a deal.
The risks are obvious. Mr Mitchell possesses the patience of Job, but even he may decide that enough is enough, leaving the untested Mr Mandelson to take centre stage. Insuperable opposition within his own unruly party might oblige Mr Trimble to throw in the towel. We believe that the unionists should have taken the advice proffered them in the Stormont lobby to "call the bluff" of the republicans by accepting the package. Is it too much to hope that after a weekend of thinking things over - and perhaps a little more finetuning of proposals whose details we do not know - they will?Reuse content