Despite the paramilitary ceasefire, there is no indication that the Provisional IRA is prepared to either hand over or destroy any guns. Without the decommissioning of weapons, the Ulster Unionists will not accept Sinn Fein's presence on Northern Ireland's power-sharing executive. And though technically Mo Mowlam, the Northern Ireland Secretary, could still set up the executive, without Sinn Fein's participation there would be little point. Whatever the private feelings of David Trimble and Gerry Adams, the leaders of the Ulster Unionists and Sinn Fein, about decommissioning, they both fear that they would be dead in the water unless their opponents give way.
Today is the second, and most likely the final, chance to push through a settlement. At first Dr Mowlam and her Irish counterpart will be presiding over the negotiations. If there is any likelihood of success then Tony Blair and Bertie Aherne, the Irish Prime Minister, will arrive in a flurry of helicopters on Thursday. To let the talks drift on would almost certainly lead to the end of the Good Friday Agreement. The negotiations were meant to have concluded by Easter. In shifting the deadline, Mo Mowlam showed that she was aware that the political process should not be stymied by such negotiating devices as deadlines. However, some deadlines are not arbitrary.
Last year's referendum in Eire that secured the abandonment of the claim to sovereignty over the six Ulster counties depended on setting up a new government in Northern Ireland in a year's time. To add fuel to the flames the Orange marching season begins in June. Another series of riots on the Garvaghy Road between police and Unionists before the executive is in place could create the kind of lawlessness that would kill the negotiations. Even without the Garvaghy Road, the European elections will take up politicians' time and goodwill.
The Hillsborough Declaration, issued by the British and Irish governments before Easter, set out a draft agreement for decommissioning. The British government has sensibly offered to make concessions about the presence of British troops in Ulster in return for some IRA weapons being decommissioned. There must be every effort to show the IRA that decommissioning weapons does not represent surrender but the opportunity to create a just future for Northern Ireland's Catholic and republican people.
However, Sinn Fein cannot expect much more from the British government. If these talks fail it will be the IRA's fault. If the IRA chooses to hamstring Sinn Fein, it will have thrown away peace for the sake of a symbol. There will be few in Northern Ireland who will want to resume the bombing over the issue of decommissioning. The pity is that it only ever takes a few.Reuse content