Will hope or cynicism triumph in this fateful week for Ulster?

OVER THE years, emotions in Northern Ireland have swung wildly around the compass - from hope to despair, from grief to celebration, from horror to occasional elation. Of late, a new sentiment has been prevalent: that of tedium. Even to those fascinated by the fate of the place, recent months have provided only occasional surges of interest before each chance of a breakthrough gives way to fresh disappointment. With Kosovo to occupy attention, it is easy to understand how the rest of the world sees the Northern Ireland problem as tiresome.

The picture is actually quite similar within Northern Ireland itself, where the political near-paralysis has caused many to simply switch off and get on with their lives. And although few openly rejoice about it, most lives have improved immeasurably over the past year. Think back to last August, when the horror of the Omagh bombing claimed 29 lives in the Co Tyrone town. Instead of blowing the peace process apart, its legacy was the opposite, greatly strengthening the communal determination not to go back to war.

Since Omagh there have been eight killings, five by loyalists and three by republicans. Loyalists killed two women, one of them the solicitor Rosemary Nelson, as well as an RUC officer, a Catholic man and a Protestant assassin shot dead in an internal feud. The other three dead were a former republican supergrass and two alleged drug dealers, all of whom may well have been killed by the IRA.

The funerals have therefore not stopped, and nor have the "punishment" beatings and other acts of paramilitary violence, but the killing rate has dropped to its lowest in three decades. This is not perfect peace: still less does it represent tranquillity or community harmony. It is, nonetheless, the least violent time since 1969.

Nearly all the soldiers are off the streets; policemen do not have to check warily under their cars each morning for Semtex boobytraps left in the night; roadblocks no longer irritate motorists; there are signs of new economic investment. In politics, a new culture of dialogue has developed. It is now commonplace for Gerry Adams to meet David Trimble and Tony Blair: nearly everybody now talks to nearly everybody else. There is civilised exchange, if not yet friendship or trust; but there is no breakthrough.

For more than a year now politics has pivoted on the question of arms decommissioning. But while republicans and unionists remain at loggerheads on this crucial fact, a wide measure of agreement has in fact emerged on many other fronts. Just about every other pertinent detail of Northern Ireland's proposed new architecture is in place and prepared for use. The new assembly has been elected for a year and stands ready to assume power, while new north-south structures are ready to roll.

But decommissioning has sat centre stage, defying all attempts to date to resolve its thorny issues, a fiendishly ingenious little virus which prevents the whole computer program from running as it was meant to. It has succeeded in removing all sense of momentum from the peace process.

Movement and energy have given way to tedium, especially among the senior political figures who have spent a monotonous and fruitless year grappling with the issue. Many of the wider public have become disillusioned, reckoning that it will never be sorted out and falling prey to apathy and disillusion. Some of them figure that this is probably as good as it is ever going to get, taking comfort from the reduced killing rate but concluding that the formation of a new cross-community government is beyond the politicians and will never happen.

They have, in effect, concluded that bore-bore is preferable to war-war and learnt to live with political stagnation. It is fairly obvious to others, however, that building a permanently better future depends on underpinning the ceasefires with a political settlement which can serve as a standing testament that politics can achieve more than violence.

That is a widespread assumption, but by no means a universal one. A militant minority on the republican side still has faith in violence and regards a recourse to war as an option for the future. This is one reason for the IRA's opposition to decommissioning.

There is an even greater problem, numerically at least, on the Protestant side. There, the hard fact is that half or more Protestants and unionists voted against the Good Friday agreement, and do not believe its promise that a bright new future is on offer. Last year's referendum on the agreement produced a 71 per cent endorsement of it, but that result contained an imbalance. More than 95 per cent of Catholics and nationalists voted for it, but Protestants split 50-50.

The glacial pace of the past year has, in one sense, given more Protestants time to acclimatise to the accord. But it has not led to an increase in Protestant enthusiasm, as opposed to resignation, about the agreement, and the recent European election saw the Rev Ian Paisley triumphantly assume his accustomed place at the top of the poll. He argues that his big vote meant that Protestant opinion has swung away from the accord. The agreement's supporters contest this, contending that the European vote was just an old-style sectarian census, and not a damning new judgement on the accord. If there is to be a successful outcome to the present negotiation, Paisley had better be wrong and they had better be right.

While it is hard to prove or disprove either case, it is certain that the result was a psychological blow to pro-agreement unionists. Within the Ulster Unionist party the knives are, if not yet openly out for David Trimble, at least being loosened in their sheathes.

Once again the two sides of the community present entirely different pictures. Many Catholics and nationalists are more cynical than they were about the agreement, but it is a fair bet that they would still turn out to support it in the same numbers. Furthermore, most nationalists and indeed republicans are politically highly pragmatic. They appear ready to approve of republican decommissioning if it would break the impasse. The problem seems to lie within ranks of the IRA, whose leaders appear to fear that such a move would bring a split.

On the Protestant and unionist side there is much confusion. That public is already deeply divided not just on the Good Friday agreement, but on the fundamental question of whether it is possible or wise even to think of cross-community government. To some, the Good Friday agreement means they must trust Tony Blair and Gerry Adams, and they don't.

These divisions mean that there is little general confidence that this critical negotiation will succeed. The past few years have actually been good times for optimists, as time and again seemingly impassable barriers were surmounted. But this time the trenches have been dug deep, and it will take a combination of good management, creativity, ingenuity, determination, courage and luck to break the deadlock. All of those involved know that injudicious moves on their part run the risk of splitting their own people; they know too that failure could throw away the chance of historic progress, and could cost many lives.

`Through the Mindfield', the fourth collection of David McKittrick's journalism, is published today by the Blackstaff Press in Belfast

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