Northern Ireland: Peace deal teams feel their way with `baby steps'

Negotiation by strict sequence emerges as method to break the logjam, while Trimble says it is `time to go into the future'
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The Independent Online
THE LOYALIST politician David Ervine used to say the peace process should proceed by taking what he called baby steps, meaning moves should be kept small and cautious until everybody got to know each other better.

That concept lies behind what began in Belfast yesterday: the issuing of statements, in carefully ordered sequence, by the former US senator George Mitchell, then by the Canadian General John de Chastelain, and then by Peter Mandelson, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

Next Gerry Adams, John Hume, David Trimble and later Martin McGuinness chipped in with commentary on what was going on. The 10 weeks which Mr Mitchell has devoted to his review of the Good Friday Agreement have clearly produced an intricate plan.

So far at least, everyone seems to be singing from the same hymn-sheet, inching the process forward while raising hopes and increasing optimism with largely upbeat assessments of the chances of eventual success.

Mr Mitchell will remain in play, staying in Belfast for the moment. General de Chastelain is also becoming more active, his International Decommissioning Commission having been earmarked to play a central role from now on. Mr Mandelson can also be expected to play a more prominent part.

The game is, therefore, on. Yesterday's statements are due to be followed today by publication of the parties' positions as they developed during the review, followed by a final report from Mr Mitchell.

Since the hymn-sheet they are all singing from has yet to be published, it is not fully clear how far ahead this carefully co-ordinated strategy will reach. The indications are, however, that the understandings reached between Mr Trimble and Mr Adams do not constitute total agreement on the way ahead.

It is therefore not the case that the process can simply be placed on autopilot and expected to deliver the twin prizes of devolution and decommissioning. At least two huge points of uncertainty remain.

The first is on the republican side. By all accounts Sinn Fein seriously engaged in the talks on decommissioning but at the same time neither they nor the IRA have guaranteed it will take place. There will be an anxious wait to see whether the IRA really does intend to come up with the goods.

The second area of uncertainty is on the Ulster Unionist side, where Mr Trimble leads a divided party. Many in the ranks expected him to emerge from the talks with total certainty on decommissioning but it has not worked out that way.

The party may thus be asked, for the first time, to take something of a leap in the dark. Some leading members have signalled they will oppose Mr Trimble on this, if and when he takes the issue to the ruling Ulster Unionist Council.

As this process continues, small but violent elements on the republican and loyalist sides will be intent on derailing it. Security forces on both sides of the border have scored successes over recent weeks, but everyone is uncomfortably aware that even a small number of extremists can offer a destabilising threat.