This row about guns will not unravel the peace process

The present peace is an imperfect state of affairs, but infinitely preferable to what went before
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The Independent Culture
UNTIL A little while ago the Northern Ireland peace process seemed to be summed up by the old Belfast adage, simultaneously cynical and optimistic, that the situation was desperate but not serious.

Recently the general view has shifted, as the impasse over arms decommissioning continues, mistrust remains at high levels and agreement on even routine details seems to take an eternity.

Both the Unionist party and the republican movement have painted themselves carefully into tight little corners that seem to offer no room for manoeuvre. David Trimble repeatedly says, with no ambiguity in his language, that he will not head an executive that includes Sinn Fein unless the IRA decommissions.

The IRA has just reiterated that it is firmly against decommissioning. Republicans accuse the Unionist party of trying to send them back to war, and speak ominously of growing disillusionment with the Good Friday agreement. Both sides believe, or affect to believe, that the other has won too many concessions, and it's their turn now.

So how bad is it? There are certainly reasons to be worried, for in addition to the central decommissioning deadlock there are many dangerous mines strewn around the landscape.

Savage "punishment" beatings by the major paramilitary groups still go on in ghetto backstreets. There are recurring street clashes between Protestants and Catholics in a number of areas. .

The major paramilitary groups, loyalist and republican, have by and large maintained their ceasefires, but on both sides menacing splinters have appeared. These are microscopic in comparison to the big organisations, but they can kill, and have killed. The awful example of Omagh, where 29 people were killed just four months ago, is a reminder of what a single bomb can do.

Disputes over loyalist marches still take place regularly. Orangemen in Portadown regard the banning of last July's Drumcree parade as a standing affront to their heritage, and continue to mount regular protests. It would be wrong to depict Northern Ireland as a society in turmoil, but it is plainly not a land at ease with itself. The Good Friday agreement may have provided a blueprint for more peaceful co-existence, but most of it has not yet been enacted, and even when it is there will be years of coping with the legacy not just of the Troubles, but of previous centuries of discord.

Decommissioning can be viewed as a metaphor for all of that, as two communities struggle to work out the new power relationships between their political representatives. David Trimble says he is prepared to share cabinet power with Sinn Fein, but only on his own terms; republicans say he is in the business of trying to cut them down to size.

A constant talking-point in political circles is the state of Mr Trimble's party. The May referendum on the agreement produced 71 per cent approval for it, but nearly half the Unionists voted against it. Many of these No voters now appear to accept that the overall result has given it considerable legitimacy, and that it is probably here to stay.

But even a section of those Unionists who voted for the agreement do not want Sinn Fein in the new government, or would accept this only after decommissioning. The latter position has been deliberately hardened up by Mr Trimble, who supported a motion to that effect at his recent party conference.

The debate continues on whether this is his own preferred stance or whether he has been pushed into it by his assembly back-benchers, some of whom have grave reservations about the Good Friday agreement. It is certainly the case, however, that a majority of his Westminster MPs remain opposed to the whole deal. These divisions mean that the party line has been volatile and unpredictable.

Another frequent subject for debate is whether some in the Unionist party might actually believe the decommissioning demand could in the end deliver them a republican-free executive. If they could pull this off it would produce an executive based on the Unionist party, the Rev Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist party and the nationalist SDLP.

This is a mirage. Not only would it smack of a resurrection of Unionist majority rule, but it would mean John Hume and Seamus Mallon of the SDLP abandoning their philosophy of political inclusion and agreeing to the sidelining of Sinn Fein. Mr Hume did not spend all those years helping to bring the republicans into the system, and winning a Nobel peace prize for it, to abandon them now.

The much more likely scenario is that the decommissioning issue will come to a head in the new year, and will somehow be resolved. At present no one can say precisely how the irresistible force of Mr Trimble can avoid a destructive collision with the immovable object of Mr Adams; but the overwhelming sense is simply that it must be done.

A breakthrough this week on the issues of government departments and new cross-border arrangements could help the atmosphere considerably, and that is a possibility. But even if that doesn't happen, the chances are against the whole thing unravelling.

This is because there is an underlying strength and appeal in the peace process that has enabled it to surmount so many obstacles in the past. A variety of factors continue to underpin it: all sides know that Tony Blair, with his 170-odd majority, is not to be trifled with; they also know the moral and political force of that 71 per cent referendum vote.

And almost all the politicians personally want the new system to work. In part this is because of the straightforward lure of office, position and status, after years when politics offered gainful employment to very few. In part it is due to idealism, of wanting to be part of a system that offers an alternative to war.

Even as the Unionist party and Sinn Fein bombard each other with hard- line rhetoric, the bottom line is that they have a shared interest: both see real advantages in the new system, and neither wants it to fail. Putting something similar together again after a collapse would take long years.

Above all, there is the deep public desire for peace. The present peace is, as we have seen, a highly imperfect state of affairs, yet for most people it is infinitely preferable to what went before. It is this huge and pressing desire for peace which will eventually propel Unionists and republicans in the direction of the accommodation which has so far eluded them.