The condition of the Irish peace process, in the wake of Thursday's late-night IRA statement and yesterday's flurry of rhetoric, appears to conform to the old Belfast saying that things are desperate but not serious.
Ever since the IRA cessation declaration of August 1994, the peace has almost always seemed reasonably solid but never secure. Punishment beatings, for example, have provided regular reminders that the IRA and the loyalist paramilitary groups are still out there.
The arms de-commissioning issue, which was at the centre of yesterday's exchanges, has served as a symbol of the patent lack of trust among the participants in the peace process. It remains the case that after many months of argument no middle way has yet emerged to bridge the gulf between the government and the republicans.
The brief of the international body on de-commissioning, which is headed by the former US Senator George Mitchell, is to attempt to reconcile the two positions and produce a report by mid-January. This is clearly a formidable task which will stretch the ingenuity of Senator Mitchell and his two colleagues, a Canadian and a Finn, to the limit. But in the meantime the peace process goes on and crucially, despite the impression given by some over-excited reporting yesterday, Sinn Fein have promised to co-operate fully with the Senator.
According to the Sinn Fein vice-president Pat Doherty: "We will certainly submit our views on this whole de-commissioning issue. We will try and deal with this new phase of [the peace process] as positively as we possibly can." The political reality is that the republicans could not have boycotted the body, headed as it is by President Clinton, whose goodwill they are anxious to maintain.
The understanding for some time has been that Sinn Fein would not only talk to the international body but would do so "authoritatively," as the present inter-governmental jargon puts it. This is taken to mean that its representatives will not simply make the rhetorical point that it is a political party which has no arms. Rather, they will seriously engage on the arms issue, in effect speaking for the IRA.
Mr Mitchell and his colleagues are due to meet in New York for the first time this weekend, before travelling in about a week's time to Belfast and Dublin.
The primary objective of the IRA statement was to place on Mr Mitchell's desk an explicit and up-to-date reminder of the absolute republican position that "there is no question of the IRA meeting the ludicrous demand for a surrender of IRA weapons either through the front or the back door". The unmistakable message is to direct Mr Mitchell and his colleagues to look in other directions for routes out of the impasse.
From a republican point of view the British Government has adopted a hard-line stance by insisting, in the face of opposition from the Irish government and others, on adhering to the position that actual de-commissioning must take place before full-blown negotiations can start.
The British Government has resisted all calls to move away from this requirement or to fudge it; the IRA for its part has not softened either. The key question of the next five weeks will be whether Senator Mitchell can produce a magic formula which everyone can live with. His ability to do so will determine whether the situation deteriorates from the merely desperate to the really serious.Reuse content