One widely held view, advanced most forcefully by the Deputy First Minister, Seamus Mallon, is that it is inconceivable that any issue, no matter how important, could be allowed to place the entire process at risk.
The more pessimistic view, however, is that the two warring elements in the debate - David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist Party leader, and the Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams - have painted themselves into corners so completely that agreement is difficult to envisage.
At the heart of the problem lies the extraordinary number of guns held in Ireland, on both sides of the border, by paramilitary groups from both republicans and loyalists. The security forces estimate that the IRA has up to 1,000 rifles. To this can be added hundreds of revolvers and pistols, as well as a quantity of heavy weaponry that includes powerful machine-guns, anti-aircraft weapons and ground-to-air missiles.
Most of this was imported to Ireland from Libya in the mid-Eighties. Libya also supplied Semtex; despite its intensive use between the mid- Eighties and mid-Nineties, the IRA may still possess up to three tons of the powerful plastic explosive.
On the loyalist side, the extreme Protestant groups are thought to have perhaps 400 rifles and 300 handguns, with some dozens of machine-guns and a small quantity of explosives, which they show no sign of handing in.
Part of the republican argument for refusing to disarm is that Protestants hold so many weapons, most of them legally. Northern Ireland has always had a high number of licensed firearms. After Unionist lobbying these were exempted from the post-Dunblane clampdown on guns in Britain.
There are 139,000 licensed firearms in a country of 1.5 million people. Most of these are shotguns and airguns, with 13,000 small-bore rifles and 12,700 handguns. There are 41 firearms clubs and 38 firing ranges, and 140 registered firearms dealers.
On the illegal front, the statistics imply that even in the event of an arms handover the paramilitary groups would find little difficulty in replenishing armouries. In the past three decades, the security forces have seized more than 11,000 firearms, more than a million rounds of ammunition and over a hundred tons of explosives.
In terms of the current debate, however, the decommissioning issue seems to have moved out of the security sphere and into the field of pure politics. Most of those on the Unionist side who demand decommissioning appear to hope for not complete disarmament but rather a token gesture. The idea seems to be to facilitate political movement: the notion that all the weapons might be destroyed seems to be too much to hope for.Reuse content