The peace will hold: that is the feeling on the streets of Belfast. The confident mood is putting pressure on politicians to make the compromises necessary for a secure settlement, says David McKittrick
Sir Patrick Mayhew, the Northern Ireland Secretary, has been giving dire warnings about the IRA. He recently told an American audience: "It is still in being, still maintains its arsenal, is still recruiting, targeting and training, still seeking funds."

There is little reason to doubt that this is so. The IRA, one of the world's most dangerous and long-lived terrorist organisations, still has a fearsome capacity to kill and destroy; so have the loyalist groups that carried out so many assassinations while the troubles raged.

Furthermore, neither set of terrorists has been given guarantees that the peace process will lead to what they want, a united Ireland or firmer links with Britain. The fact that these goals are mutually exclusive illustrates the magnitude of the problems ahead.

Given these bare facts, an outside observer could be forgiven for surmising that the peace process is balanced on a knife edge. The population, one might think, must be in constant fear and trembling that at any minute the guns will open up again. Yet on the streets of Belfast and elsewhere, the prevailing assumption among residents and the province's many recent visitors is that the violence is probably over for good.

There are many reasons why people have, by various paths, come to hold that view. Some simply hope and pray that the violence will not return. Some watch Gerry Adams's progress in the United States and realise that a return to violence would sweep away his credibility and the new alliances he has forged.

Some believe the inconclusive outcome of the bloodshed has driven home the lesson, the hard way, that there could be no real winners. Others have simply reacted to the atmosphere, revelling in the fact that so many of the old tensions have drained away. Some saw the near-universal relief that it had stopped, and banked on that.

There has been no single moment of celebration. The IRA cessation of terrorism last August was an electric moment, but was characterised by hope rather than euphoria. At the time, it left many unanswered questions. Will it hold? Why have they stopped? Do they mean it?

The loyalist ceasefire of October was another milestone. When Gusty Spence, a one-time loyalist assassin of the Sixties, offered "the loved ones of all innocent victims over the past 25 years abject and true remorse", a new tone was set.

Even the double ceasefire was not enough to start a celebration. Once again there were so many questions in the air, centring on whether the hard men on both sides really could accept, after a quarter of a century of bloodshed, that it was all over.

But as each death-free week and month has passed, confidence has grown that the peace will hold. There is no certainty that the violence has gone for ever: there probably never will be, in a country so steeped in the tradition of the gun and so accustomed to recurring cycles of violence. There will be some who will always believe that another war is just around the corner.

The sense that peace is here to stay has grown, despite the indisputable facts outlined by Sir Patrick: the terrorists are still out there; so are their guns. There is an increasing acceptance that what is crucial is not the armouries, but the will to use them.

At the moment much of the political focus is on IRA weaponry. On the streets the view is widespread, though by no means universal, that neither the IRA nor the loyalists have any plans to draw the guns from the dumps and go back to the war.

A communal view is emerging that, guns or no guns, this is a meaningful peace. The realisation is also dawning that the question of what will happen to the terrorists' arms is only one of a series of formidable issues to be dealt with along the long road to a political settlement.

In the framework documents, the British and Irish governments outlined the type of mixed model of administration that they envisage for Northern Ireland, and for Anglo-Irish relations. The Unionist parties rejected this, but are none the less prepared to discuss their own proposals.

Round-table talks are not in the offing, but the next 12 months are expected to see a series of bilateral meetings. Unless something happens to accelerate the process - which is not impossible - round-table encounters are unlikely this side of the next British general election.

Talking is the order of the day. Belfast is suffering from conference blight as the Northern Ireland chattering classes flit from sessions to seminars, from workshops to plenaries. The conferences, held most weekends, range over the post-Troubles issues of demilitarisation and the future of policing, human rights and rebuilding the economy. The people on the street may not have a detailed interest in constitution-building, but the same sense is there, that something has changed, probably irrevocably.

After the Troubles have come the changes, and the changes have brought peace, but they have not brought political consensus. Republicans are still republicans; loyalists are still loyalists. Their aims are still far apart.

Finding an accommodation will depend on building on this peace to achieve political agreement. The politicians never managed to agree in the past, often simply walking away from the table without incurring penalties from their voters.

If the communal support for peace lasts and grows, there will be community pressure to stick to the task of negotiating an accommodation. The overwhelming message is clear: there should be no return to the bad old days. The next step will be to convert the desire to maintain the peace into a willingness to make the political compromises necessary to secure the peace.

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