Giant steps upon the long journey out of the darkness

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The Irish peace process has come as far as it has due to luck, judgment, a certain war-weariness, individual courage, the ability to surmount crises and the far-sighted vision of a few.

Progress never comes quickly, and the business of peacemaking has to go on in spite of the din of war and conflict. Thus it was that even as the IRA decommissioned its weapons the sectarian schools protest in Belfast went into its eighth week.

This underlines one fundamental need of peace processes: to keep going no matter how much violence is thrown at them and no matter how poisonous the atmosphere. They have to continue through disturbances and atrocities, for someone will always be trying to derail them.

There are many other essential fundamentals for progress. Some major players have to come to believe that there is a way out of conflict, and must be prepared to take risks. They have to set out on a dangerous path with no certain outcome.

Curiously, mutual trust has not proved essential in the Irish process. The lack of trust among the various elements remains palpable: with very few exceptions, the participants continue to regard each other with great wariness. For the most part they will not rely on each other's word.

Personal contact is also not an absolute necessity. The political mainstay of the Irish process is the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which established the Belfast Assembly and its cross-community administration.

Before it was signed, Gerry Adams and Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble were involved in many round-table talks, but they never held a one-on-one meeting and never addressed each other directly.

Trimble's deputy John Taylor recalled: "Gerry Adams knew we were not prepared to talk to him, so when he would meet people in the corridor he would make some gesture, saying good morning or something like that. But I ignored the man."

Mr Adams himself recalled: "My best discussions with the Unionists were in the men's room, where they were a captive audience and it was possible to engage in some conversation, sometimes one-sided."

This almost complete lack of dialogue was later to come as a shock to Nelson Mandela and others in South Africa when Unionists and republicans attended a conference there but refused to mix together. In an ironic reversion to apartheid, Mandela had to resort to making separate addresses to two different audiences.

A conference organiser said: "The South Africans didn't understand the intensity of the divisiveness and were astounded and nonplussed by it, saying, 'wow, we thought we had problems – even in our worst days we were never like this'."

The Belfast process moved on none the less, even though Adams and Trimble have yet to shake hands. Although they now meet almost routinely, there is no real sense that any personal relationship has developed, beyond the briskly businesslike.

The mechanism that has been most useful in compensating for this dearth of trust is the fear which most participants harbour of being blamed for setbacks. Tough talking is common enough, but few want to be blamed as negative obstructionists.

This stems largely from the fact that the Northern Ireland problem has been internationalised. In the early days of the troubles British governments regarded it as a purely domestic UK issue, only gradually conceding that Dublin also had a role.

American involvement became a major factor during the 1990s due to Bill Clinton's unusually deep personal interest. This international dimension clearly encouraged the IRA in its decommissioning decision, since it was anxious not to incur American wrath in the post-11 September world.

The arrival of such new elements has provided greater fluidity, since the problem was no longer narrowly defined as a simplistic Protestants versus Catholics or the IRA against the British. With more elements in play, more creative approaches became possible, with more pressure available to bring to bear on the intransigent.

While open international diplomacy can help, secret talks can also play a part. Conservative governments headed by John Major and indeed Margaret Thatcher both allowed British intelligence to keep up contacts with the IRA.

These were not decisive in the peace process but they did convey a sense that, despite the harsh rhetoric deployed against each other in public, the two sides were interested in conducting a private reconnaissance of each other's positions.

The key concept that paved the way for the progress of recent years was that of political inclusivity. When republicans began to emit signals, in the late 1980s, that they were interested in dialogue they were generally spurned.

One of the very few who responded positively was John Hume, leader of the SDLP. In an extraordinary move, given that his party were Sinn Fein's rivals for the nationalist vote, he opened contacts with the republicans despite the continuing IRA violence.

It was a move which would eventually earn him the Nobel peace prize, but at the time it brought a torrent of condemnation on his head. He had broken what was then the cardinal rule that politicians should not talk to "the men of violence".

It was some years before Mr Hume was proved right. His basic thesis was that those using terrorist violence should, if they were prepared to change, be brought into the political system and given every help and encouragement to shift from the gun into politics. Prodigal sons, in other words, should be made welcome.

This week's act of decommissioning was made possible by the fact that Gerry Adams was able to demonstrate to the IRA that politics works. Sinn Fein has prospered in recent years, showing the militarists that politics can achieve more than violence.

One lesson from this is that a peace process can develop even though it may contain internal imbalances. The process emerged from within Irish republicanism and nationalism: originally it left British governments and Unionists cold.

It was only gradually that London and Unionism became persuaded of the potential merits of the process. David Trimble is today one of those leading the process but early on he opposed it.

One of the greatest dangers to the Irish process comes from the fact that opinion within Unionism remains deeply divided about the whole idea, with half or more Unionists against it. This means that survival of the process has often seemed precarious.

The hope of its supporters is that the IRA decommissioning will now bring to it a stability which it has not so far enjoyed. As all this implies, a peace process is a journey. The Irish experience has been that killings have fallen sharply in recent years, but they have not entirely ceased: the process in other words is valuable but imperfect.

History, geography and a host of other factors dictate that Northern Ireland is never going to be a tranquil, placid place. There is still much hate around, but now it coexists with hope.

Former US Senator George Mitchell summed up the process with words at once cautionary and hopeful: "It's good not to get too high at the good moments, nor to get too low at the bad moments. This has been centuries in the making; it will be years in the changing."