David McKittrick says that Unionist outrage does not reflect the people's changing mood
The events of the past week, with all its alarums and excursions over the Irish peace process, may yet prove to be not just a time of high excitement but a defining moment of lasting significance. Time was when a revelation such as the leak to the Times would have been almost guaranteed to raise the Protestant temperature in Belfast, resulting in warlike noises and increased tensions and violence.

Instead, the city was almost uncannily quiet. Its highly politicised citizens were certainly paying close attention to events at Westminster, but the furore created in London by Unionist MPs such as David Trimble and John Taylor was not matched by angry noises at home. On this occasion, customarily aggressive dogs simply did not bark - and their silence may yet turn out to be the most significant feature of the whole affair. A Unionist community steeped in a culture of rejectionism decided, for once, towait and see.

Unionist politicians have often felt able to walk away from negotiations, secure in the knowledge that the electorate, sensing little chance of success, would not penalise them. But that was then, while the violence raged; this is now, when there is peace. After five months of IRA inactivity, there are signs that old moulds are being broken.

Over the years the Troubles have seen a contraction of the base of Unionist politics. The professional and business classes pulled out long ago, turning away from politics as an unsavoury business. The young tend to view it as the domain of tired and bitter old men, and generally steer well clear. This has left the field free for a breed of aggressive representatives - gladiators rather than conciliators.

Under the old system the Taylor-Trimble belligerence would have been followed by unrest in Belfast, with specific threats from loyalist paramilitants. But last week something different happened, and it is traceable to one powerful new ingredient: peace. One loyalist militant yesterday summed up the mood in these terms: "There's a general opinion that the Unionists at Westminster have overreacted. In the main people want to see things being given a chance. They have grown used to peace. There are still anxieties, but people are happy with the peace." Though old suspicions still exist alongside this tangible yearning to keep the peace alive, Unionist politicians may now be called upon to be more than mere tribal champions. The contrast with the politicalscene of just a few months ago is remarkable.

Just last October James Molyneaux was feted by his party at its annual conference in Carrickfergus, Co Antrim. In one of the most embarrassing moments of this shy politician's career, Young Unionists took to the floor and, to the strains of Tina Turner's"Simply the Best" waved photographs of him in the air.

Actively proud of his low profile, he once said: "I'm the dull dog of Ulster politics and nobody takes much notice of what I say." The quote was intended to convey that while he had neither the vocal chords nor the desire to compete with the Rev Ian Paisley, he achieved much more in his own quiet way. In other words, he preferred to work discreetly in the corridors of power to which he gained access by virtue of the nine valuable Commons votes he commanded. His projection was that the Unionist cause wasthus being unobtrusively but inexorably advanced.

The events which unfolded last week - the impact of the Times's selective leak on the Anglo-Irish framework document, and the fever of activity which followed - at first seemed to be in his party's favour, if not his own: the Ulster Unionists had received a timely warning that their interests were not being protected by the Molyneaux-Major relationship. But, as the week ended the signs were that it had been disastrous for the cause of traditional Unionism.

The leak is presumed to have come from someone high in Government who regarded the framework document as anti-Unionist and whose motive was to sabotage it. The effect was the opposite. The leak resulted in almost complete isolation of the Unionists in the Commons. John Major's subsequent television broadcast was widely interpreted in Britain as a gallant bid to save the peace process, though in fact neither of the ceasefires, IRA and loyalist, looks to be in the slightest danger. Mr Major's action further firmly identified the type of north-south structures envisaged in the document with the wider cause of peace.

Mr Taylor and Mr Trimble's subsequent aggressive television appearances elicited irritation at what was perceived as their unyielding negativity. One London-based Unionist said despairingly: "They lost us support and sympathy every time they opened theirmouths."

Meanwhile, Mr Molyneaux's response was couched in his characteristic ambivalent style, leading one observer to remark: "As usual, Jim burnt no boats." In this he seems to reflect the more open-minded mood in Belfast.

Most immediately, the two governments are pushing ahead to complete the document which could be ready for launch as early as the middle of this month. This will test whether the enthusiasm for peace will herald a new willingness to consider compromise.

Over the years a number of prime ministers and Northern Ireland secretaries have toyed with exploiting a gap between politicians and voters. In almost all instances they were wrong: no such gaps existed, or, if they did, they snapped shut at election time. This time it could be different.

The stirrings on the Unionist side came not from the political leaders but from the grassroots, most strikingly and surprisingly from the ranks of the loyalist paramilitary groups, who have formed left-leaning fringe parties. But the old patterns will not change overnight. This week they fared badly in a council by-election, Mr Molyneaux's candidate decisively beating the loyalist whose slogan, borrowed from BT, was "It's good to talk". And always in the wings will be Rev Paisley.

Publication of the framework document will be an important juncture in the peace process. Its contents, and last week's events, have left Unionist leaders with no immediate alternative but to produce a markedly negative reaction to the document when it emerges.

But last week they were confronted with some unsettling new facts of life: that the British and Irish governments, for all their differences, have a shared vision of the future; that the entire House of Commons will frown on a complete rejection of the document; and that, among their own supporters, things may be changing.

Many regard the preservation of the peace as something worth taking risks for. Some of the old certainties are crumbling as the power of peace makes itself felt.