Northern Ireland: Signposts on the long road to peace: The IRA ceasefire opened a window of opportunity, but the view is obscured by myriad problems. David McKittrick outlines the issues

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The Independent Online
LAST WEEK Royal Ulster Constabulary officers set up a crime-prevention advice stand in Park Centre, a shopping complex just inside nationalist west Belfast. Local Sinn Fein members staged a placard protest, calling the RUC an unacceptable police force. It was a tiny incident, but also a telling sign of how quickly and profoundly change is coming to Northern Ireland.

Three weeks ago such an RUC operation would have been highly unlikely, since it invited a potentially lethal IRA action: today, republicans still do not like it, but their objections take the form of protests rather than rocket attacks.

Northern Ireland is now facing a new phase where many of the ground rules - some trivial, some fundamental - are going to change. Few realise just how profound the changes are going to be, and how many things might go wrong.

The IRA ceasefire, though a momentous move, was only one step along a complicated, precarious and painful road to peace. It clearly opens an important window of opportunity, but it also opens up a whole new vista of problems to be addressed.

There are many more questions than answers. Will the violent loyalists declare their own ceasefire? Will they and the IRA hand in their weaponry? How can the formidable security apparatus be gradually dismantled? Will prisoners be released early? How can a security economy be transformed into a conventional one? And can sworn enemies ever get round a table and hammer out a lasting settlement?

This survey of the issues does not purport to set out a timetable or suggest exactly how the manifold problems might be overcome. It is rather an attempt to chart some of the major issues that will have to be addressed if the peace process is to stay on course.

Some problems may melt away and cause surprisingly little trouble, while others have the capacity to flare up into sticking-points. And always there is the possibility of the unforeseen: the unpredicted political development, or series of events, or acts of violence, which might derail the whole process.

Pessimists can point to the number and scale of the problems and wonder how all of them can possibly be dealt with. Optimists will argue that elsewhere in the world other conflicts with even greater problems have been effectively resolved. One thing is, however, clear: success will require both increased goodwill and determination, and both judgement and luck.

Leading article, page 17