Politics: No guarantees as Ulster pushes on the door of peace

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The Independent Online
Is the IRA falling apart? Will the Belfast political talks make headway? Our Ireland correspondent forecasts an eventful road ahead for the Northern Ireland peace process.

One wise old political bird, asked recently if he thought the peace process would work, smiled and said: "We should know within ten years." He was, he explained, not being facetious, but simply reflecting the fact that a return to violence will remain a possibility for many years to come.

The benign scenario for both the British and Irish governments is that the republican movement and the Ulster Unionist party remain intact and that, hopefully by next year, both may find it possible to subscribe to a new deal.

This could open the door to a new era in which both sides would feel able to subscribe to agreed new institutions. Yet even such a historic breakthrough would not guarantee peace, for there will always be the potential for an unravelling of the process, beginning on either the republican or loyalist sides.

Still less are any guarantees available at the moment. No one can be sure that the republican movement will first of all stay in one piece, and then go on to accept a political settlement which will undoubtedly leave a border in Ireland.

Similarly no one can be confident that a deal palatable to republicans will also be acceptable to David Trimble's Ulster Unionists, subject as they are to constant flank attacks from the eternally dissident and dissonant Rev Ian Paisley.

On the republican side, however, those loyal to Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams are - so far at least - successfully holding the line against their internal dissidents. In the past few weeks they have lost up to a dozen Sinn Fein members in Co Louth in the Irish Republic, as well as five of the 13 members of the IRA executive, which is a sort of advisory board made up of distinguished IRA greybeards.

There is a high degree of internal confidence in the Adams leadership. But below this there are undercurrents of worry at about an arrangement which would leave the border intact and the British still in Ireland. Republicans also grumble about what they characterise as lack of movement on issues such as prisoners.

Selling what the hardliners will denounce as a partitionist arrangement is a problem for the future. For the moment, however, the IRA and Sinn Fein are engaged in a propaganda battle with the five dissenters about the extent of divisions.

The dissenters are not doing well. They were resoundingly voted down at an important IRA meeting; they seem disorganised; and they lack a single charismatic leader. They have also gone public with their criticisms, which does not go down well within the republican omerta culture; and they have wildly exaggerated their support, with the result that any future claims from them will be received with great scepticism.

They also face a republican leadership which has for more than two decades shown consummate infighting and manoeuvring skills within republicanism. But perhaps most tellingly of all they have not voiced an alternative to the Adams strategy: a simple cry of "back to the war" would find few takers.

Observers at all points of the political compass are watching for signs of further republican fissures, which cannot be ruled out. But as of now the odds are stacked against the dissenters.

While all this has been going on outside the talks, precious little has been moving within Stormont. The two governments and most of the parties have been in the same building but there has been, by all accounts, little or no meeting of minds.

While the Ulster Unionists have often been in the same room as Sinn Fein, they resolutely refuse to have any direct contact or dealing with the republicans. For many weeks now the parties have been setting out their positions in a generalised way. "We've just been surfing the agenda," as one delegate put it.

Many of the other parties criticise the Ulster Unionists for allegedly not taking the talks seriously enough. David Trimble rarely appears, they complain, UUP documents are so terse as to be almost contemptuous, and party representatives are said to be at times churlish and rude.

Part of the explanation for this may lie in the fact that Unionism has already experienced the type of split which the republicans are now trying to cope with. Mr Paisley and an ally, Robert McCartney, are campaigning for a complete Unionist withdrawal from the talks.

Yesterday the process moved into a different and potentially crucial phase, which may indicate whether genuine engagement and real horse-trading is possible within the present talks format. The next few weeks will see an intensive round of bilateral meetings as the chairman, former US Senator George Mitchell, and the British government probe for areas of possible flexibility and compromise. This may help show whether Unionists and republicans will be looking over their shoulders at their critics, or whether relationships can be established to make movement possible.