This time, the IRA might make a real difference

`The significance of a statement from not only Sinn Fein but also the IRA can't be underestimated'
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ALL DAY long yesterday, officials in London, Belfast and Dublin glanced anxiously, with monotonous regularity, at their teletext screens to see what progress the final stages of Senator George Mitchell's review was making. It was not, of course, the absolutely final crunch. If the talks were to end abortively, it was highly unlikely to mean the end of the IRA ceasefire and a return to war. But it would be, for all that, a source of deep disappointment, if only because of the palpable progress that was made last week.

Once again, the issue at the heart of them was decommissioning. No, paramilitary disarmament had not been identified in the Good Friday agreement as a precondition of a new, devolved government in Northern Ireland. But the political reality - by now accepted across the widest political spectrum - was that the Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble could not deliver an executive including Sinn Fein without making progress on that one, for so long intractable, issue.

And at last there had been real hope. Much had changed since the talks before Easter at Hillsborough, and then again at Belfast in July; it had been the two governments that had been in the driving seat. At Hillsborough, all the pressure had been on the republicans and the Unionists thought, or purported to think, that Gerry Adams would sell to the republicans a symbolic act of decommissioning as their part of the act of reconciliation then proposed by Mr Ahern and Mr Blair. But in July all the heat was on the Unionists to kick-start the process by agreeing to the formation of the executive. And, with all the drama of encroaching deadlines and a full media circus that had attended the Good Friday talks 15 months earlier, the attempt ultimately failed.

What the heroically patient George Mitchell then set about was something new. The republicans had so long sought face-to-face talks with the Ulster Unionists that it had become a totem; the demand for the Unionists to talk directly with Sinn Fein, rather than through the chair, took on a significance all its own, a potent symbol of the "equality of treatment" that they had insisted should be meted out to Sinn Fein as a party. With Mitchell as a catalyst they now had all the time and opportunity, first at the US Ambassador's capacious residence in London's Regent's Park, and then back in Belfast, that they needed in order to do just that.

Of course, Adams had met Trimble face to face before, but this was engagement of an intensity hitherto unknown. It was close up and personal. There were no absolute deadlines. The London and Dublin governments were at arm's length. And, at Mitchell's suggestion, a media blackout meant that no one in either party kept popping outside to strike unhelpful postures for the benefit of his own activist constituency on live television.

The other pro-agreement parties, from the nationalist SDLP to the former loyalist paramilitaries in the PUP, were also involved in talks, of course. The geometry was variable, with different parties present at different times. But the most notable feature was the long hours of direct discussion between the Trimble and the Adams teams. Sinn Fein could no longer complain that they had received no equality of treatment. And out of this long, almost leisurely, process there came in return this week the tentative outline of something that was every bit as fundamentally important to the Ulster Unionists: a statement that dealt with decommissioning and which came not only from Sinn Fein, but from the IRA itself.

The significance of this could hardly be underestimated. Of course, the republicans' pretence that the organisations were quite separate was a nonsense. But that wasn't the point. Since Sinn Fein had sheltered behind the pseudo-distinction by saying that all it could promise was to do its best to persuade the IRA to hand over weapons (to be fair, this was also all that the text of the Good Friday agreementcommitted it to), it followed that some form of statement from the IRA itself was needed by the Unionists, to ensure that the republicans could not get off the hook.

So was born the idea of a formulation on behalf of the IRA nominating an "interlocutor" to deal direct with General De Chastelain, the Canadian charged with overseeing the process of decommissioning. This was of great importance, as the first sign of preparedness, in the name of the IRA, to contemplate some means of - "voluntarily" and not as a "precondition" - putting weaponry "beyond use". But it didn't mean that everything was suddenly plain sailing.

First, on the principle that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed, its very existence would depend on the willingness of the Ulster Unionist leader to begin the steps that would lead to establishing the inclusive and devolved executive that was envisaged in the Good Friday agreement. Here, the details of the sequence by which these parallel processes may happen are less important than some of the fears on both sides that they were supposed to calm.

First, the fears on the republican side. Supposing some form of decommissioning did indeed go ahead, and Sinn Fein, along with the wider nationalist community, then discovered that the Unionist majority had excluded the Sinn Fein and SDLP minority - perhaps including the Deputy First Minister Seamus Mallon - from the core decisions that really mattered. How far, therefore, would the Unionists be able to give cast iron guarantees of genuine, collective power-sharing?

On the Unionist side the fears were obvious, namely that the executive would come into being just like any other devolved government, but with one utterly unacceptable difference. Two of its members would continue to enjoy the use of a private army. The relations of Sinn Fein ministers with their colleagues and with the departments under their control would be lethally complicated by the weaponry and forces at their disposal.

Concrete certainty that, if the UUP fulfilled its side of the bargain, decommissioning would begin in earnest was needed to dispel that fear: the certainty expressed to the Ireland Fund of Great Britain this week by Peter Mandelson, the Northern Ireland Secretary, that when the executive is set up "everything can and will follow". The question was whether unprecedented words from the IRA and a clear anti-violence declaration from Sinn Fein would persuade the Unionists that it would.

And not just Mr Trimble, but also his deeply divided party. It is a tribute to Mr Trimble's great courage and perseverance that he has been negotiating as he has, when a majority of his parliamentary party are openly opposed to what he is doing. Their hostility has been fuelled at times, some claim, by his own predecessor Lord Molyneaux. But Mr Trimble has overcome these difficulties before.

At the time of writing it was still unclear how the talks would end. But no one could have put more work into them than Senator Mitchell, or, for that matter, Mr Adams and Mr Trimble. And in Belfast, London, and Dublin the officials, their eyes wandering to the teletext screens, continued to hope.

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