Ulster may yet prove the triumph of politics over tribal feeling

The Blair-Ahern way is to keep the momentum going rather than to batten down every single, legalistic detail
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The Independent Culture
SO WE are not quite there yet. Easter is a sacred period in the Republican calendar and this weekend the Sinn Fein leadership will fan out to the traditional rallies in memory of the 1916 rebellion. Those who hoped that they would do so, having announced that they have thought the so-far unthinkable and agreed to hand over arms before assuming office in a new devolved Northern Ireland government, will be disappointed.

This was bridge too far, even after a night of talks in which neither Tony Blair nor Bertie Ahern the Irish Taoiseach had slept, as they attempted to conclude the talks. If necessary they will return again, in Tony Blair's case Balkan war or not, when the parties reconvene on 13 April. Yet in the sunshine in front of that handsome, understated late 18th century mansion which is Hillsborough Castle, one of the last vice-regal relics of British rule, the two men yesterday afternoon seemed, despite their exhaustion, irrepressibly upbeat. What had gone on? Were they kidding us? Were they just whistling to keep their spirits up?

The answer is surely no. To say that is not to underestimate the fundamental issue that decommissioning of arms has become. Perhaps it would not have been had Sir Patrick Mayhew, John Major's second Northern Ireland Secretary, had not made it a pre-requisite in the famous "Washington Three" condition of a political settlement.

It was, after all, only after that the Unionists elevated it to the absolute precondition of sitting in an executive with Sinn Fein. It may be, too, that decommissioning can only be at best be a gesture, since no one will really know, even after it happens, where all the weaponry is and whether it has been handed over.

Maybe, too, the decision to set a deadline of Easter made it all the more difficult to achieve, since the problems for Sinn Fein on confronting their most ardent supporters at this weekend's rallies would have been not only politically difficult, but quite possibly physically dangerous. And, yes, it's true that paramilitary rebels from Ecuador to Mozambique have managed to make disarmament part of the negotiations which have concluded these wars. And it's just possible that, in contrast to last Easter, the world's eyes were not on Northern Ireland but on Kosovo, the incentive to conclude the business was just a little less than it might otherwise have been if the full international media circus had been present.

But these are details.

The fact is that the pressures on Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams, two figures that the British Government is now utterly convinced want to play their parts in normal politics beyond the shadow of the gun, are deep and serious, before and after Easter.

The pressures on David Trimble are huge too: waiting in the wings, even among his own party members elected to the nascent assembly, are men who want to see the process fail and who, if he doesn't deliver within the next fortnight, will seek to rise up and find someone else to lead them, almost certainly backwards. But for the republican leaders, the dangers are not merely political; they may even be life-threatening for men who, whatever their gruesome past attachments, have already shown real and distinctive bravery in coming this far.

So what are the grounds for the optimism which the two Prime Ministers so relentlessly conveyed outside Hillsborough yesterday? Well, first of all, despite ritually repeating their opposition to decommissioning as a prior condition of the assembly and the executive going live, Sinn Fein did not denounce the joint "working draft" which was produced by the two governments yesterday.

British officials were at some pains last night to point out that, exactly a year ago, Sinn Fein neither endorsed nor condemned the Good Friday agreement either. Yet the agreement's momentum, for all the faltering, is still there, and with the determined participation of Adams and McGuinness.

Whether the Unionist sources who claimed last night that there had been fierce internal debate over the demands for decommisioning within the Sinn Fein delegation were right, the British are surprisingly confident that both of them want the latest declaration to be fulfilled - which appears to mean that they will, in the end, have to accept the "obligation" to put enough arms, as the declaration puts it "beyond use" to satisfy Sir John de Chastelaine, the Canadian general overseeing the handover of arms.

The wording of the declaration is a little wispy in places; the exact nature of the dance in which there will be a decommissioning of "some arms" and "an act of reconciliation" before the powers are devolved, a mite unclear. But that is the Blair-Ahern way, to keep the momentum going rather than batten down every single, legalistic detail.

It is impossible not to admire the two prime ministers, in Tony Blair's case a dog-tired one no doubt, desperately hoping that war in Serbia will go better than it has done so far. Kosovo seemed a planet away as the sun shone down yesterday on Hillsborough, a sleepy village which could be in the Cotswolds if it were not in County Down. The Falls Road, the Shankhill and Portadown also seemed far away. You couldn't help wondering if the Prime Minister was able to resist the temptation to draw any comparisons between Northern Ireland and the scene of Milosevic's carnage.

All-out civil war in Northern Ireland has never been more at the very periphery of the most pessimistic vision of the last 20 years here. But it is just possible, as he shuttled with the Taoiseach between the parties, that one connection may have occurred to him. What is being attempted here is the triumph of politics over tribal feuding and the gun - an effort that has so signally failed in the former Yugoslavia. This is a land in which people who support the same football teams, buy their clothes at the same Marks and Spencer, have been capable of killing each other for no better reason that they went to the wrong school.

The popular will in Northern Ireland to see an end to that is now, probably, irresistible. Blair, a politician supremely tuned to the popular will, recognises that. But what is more important is that he is sure that all the parties understand it too. Republican engaged with Unionist at these talks, by all accounts, with a cordiality that would have been unthinkable even a year ago.

That is not a sufficient condition of the final settlement. But it is probable that David Trimble and Gerry Adams now recognise how much each needs the other to prevail in their own ranks.

Blair seemed almost irrationally optimistic that Northern Ireland would be living under power sharing devolved government by the summer. But it was an optimism that, in the spring sunshine at Hillsborough, it was impossible not to share.