Tragedies strengthen Ulster's desire for peace

Old boundaries are set to crumble yet further when, this week, Gerry Adams and David Trimble get together, reports David McKittrick
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The Independent Online
THE extraordinary roller-coaster of the Irish peace process will this week plunge on into more areas of contention, with the release of prisoners, arms de-commissioning and unionist-republican contacts all high on the agenda.

The first early releases of paramilitary prisoners, as laid down under the terms of the Good Friday agreement, may begin during the week, possibly on Wednesday. Although the initial numbers freed may not reach double figures, the hugely symbolic event will attract major attention.

The agreement's inclusion of a clause stating that those inmates belonging to an organisation maintaining a genuine ceasefire could expect their freedom within two years was the biggest shock of the multi-party negotiations.

The agreement, and thus the early release scheme, has since been endorsed by a 71 per cent vote in May's referendum. But the issue remains fraught with sensitivities, the families of some Troubles victims strongly opposing releases.

Tomorrow brings Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble and Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams together when Mr Trimble, as First Minister of the new Belfast assembly, invites all parties to talks.

A form of communication took place between the two antagonists during the visit of US President Bill Clinton to Northern Ireland last week, when Mr Trimble glared at the Sinn Fein leader as he declared: "If you take the road of peace and do so in genuine good faith, you will find me a willing leader in that journey."

The evident chilliness which persists between the two men was in complete contrast, however, to the real warmth which seems to have been established between Mr Trimble and Seamus Mallon of the nationalist SDLP, who last month was elected as his deputy.

During the Clinton visit and preceding crises such as the Drumcree marching stand-off and the Omagh bombing, they have seemed genuinely friendly towards each other. Many people have drawn great heart from the fact that representatives of often conflicting traditions can work so well together.

On platforms during the Clinton trip Mr Trimble generally introduced Mr Mallon simply as "Seamus," and on one occasion affectionately patted his arm after hearing him speak. Such small civilities may be commonplace in Britain, but in Northern Ireland their appearance marks a new departure of some note.

Drumcree and Omagh presented real and potentially destructive challenges for those supporting the Good Friday agreement. The fledgling arrangements established under the accord appear not only to have survived them intact but to have emerged strengthened.

Anti-accord elements have, in different ways, received severe setbacks. On the extreme republican side the so-called Real IRA has been politically and communally isolated since the Omagh bomb.

It is now faced with a severe security force clampdown backed up by the far-reaching new laws which were last week rushed through both Westminster and the Dail.

On the Unionist side anti-agreement factions such as the Rev Ian Paisley's party have suffered a distinct reverse first from Drumcree and then from Omagh. Both of those episodes seem to have convinced large numbers of people, including many doubters, that only the accord offers an alternative to violence.

One Paisleyite said plaintively last week: "Basically the rest of the world is ranged against us, from Congress to the EU to Yeltsin to the Dail to Tony Blair - totally against us, but we are standing up for the 30 per cent of the folk who voted `No' and we make no apology for doing so."

Last week Sinn Fein appointed Martin McGuinness to talk to the de-commissioning body and used language designed to signal that the IRA's war was over, while the IRA itself promised movement on the issue of "the disappeared" who were killed and buried by the organisation in the 1970s.

The fact that this package is regarded by London, Dublin and Washington as amounting to significant movement has created a growing assumption that the initiative now lies with Mr Trimble. The idea of his presiding over an executive including Sinn Fein members would represent an extraordinary step for a Unionist leader, but the inclusive philosophy of the peace process points inexorably in that direction.

It is certainly the ambition of Bill Clinton to see this happen which is why, directly on his arrival in Belfast, he was handed a copy of the Independent forecasting moves by Mr Trimble in the direction of Mr Adams. The visit itself helped precipitate many of the week's moves from Mr Adams and Mr Trimble. It also provided a significant overall boost for the peace process, with many people in Omagh in particular clearly drawing a degree of comfort from it.

Even some cynics who went prepared to mock the visit stayed to applaud, for whatever his weaknesses Bill Clinton undeniably produced strong chemistry in Northern Ireland. The Northern Ireland Secretary, Mo Mowlam, will build on that with her tour of the US this week, seeking further investment in Ulster. Bill Clinton's visit, together with the new Trimble-Mallon chemistry and the agreement's unexpected robustness, suggest it will be strong enough to survive the many buffetings ahead.