A "monumental distance" has been travelled since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement but its advances are not irreversible, the Northern Ireland Secretary, John Reid, warned yesterday.
He was speaking after a stock-taking exercise involving the British and Irish governments and the pro-Agreement parties in Northern Ireland at Hillsborough, Co Down.
While Mr Reid called on the IRA to carry out a second act of decommissioning, it became clear yesterday that the organisation does not intend to do so until after Easter. Some security sources had anticipated it might happen this week.
However the Sinn Fein chairman, Mitchel McLaughlin, said his party would welcome a second act of IRA decommissioning, saying it would fit into Sinn Fein's aspirations, and adding: "I think they [the IRA] have demonstrated that they will act to enhance the peace process." The expectation that more decommissioning remains on the cards has largely drawn the sting from an issue that dogged the peace process for many years.
A more immediately contentious issue is that of republican fugitives, the several dozen IRA suspects who are officially on the run and in danger of being arrested. Sinn Fein wants them to be able to return openly to Northern Ireland, while the Ulster Unionist party is calling for some sort of judicial process rather than anything that might be described as an amnesty.
The Ulster Unionist leader, David Trimble, declared: "We don't need things that are not in the Agreement and that specifically refers firstly to the question of a form of amnesty for on-the-run terrorists. That's not in the Agreement. There is no amnesty."
There have lately been signs that the Government may be able to devise a formula to deal with the issue without offending the sensitivities of the two sides.
Mr Reid, in his comments, emphasised that huge improvements had been made to the lives of people in Northern Ireland since the Good Friday Agreement was signed four years ago. He added: "We don't have a perfect peace. We don't have a perfect democracy yet, but we have made immense strides over the past four years.
"It is always possible to dwell on difficulties facing the peace process and focusing on what has yet to be done, but we should also remember just how far we have come over the last four years." He told the BBC: "If you are asking me, 'Is this process irreversible, is there an inevitability about peace?' the answer to that is 'No.' There has been an historic event of decommissioning by the IRA and of course if the process is going to work that itself has to be turned into a process which means there has to be another event."
In Dublin, meanwhile, a ceremony was held to mark the deaths of all those killed during the Troubles. The names of more than 3,600 people who died in the conflict were read aloud at the service at the Unitarian Church on St Stephen's Green in Dublin. One of the organisers said: "It is a chance for people in some way to commit themselves to see that what happened in the last 30 years in Northern Ireland is not repeated, that we don't slip into that again."Reuse content