Analysis: Presentational fiasco can still be rescued

The Northern Ireland peace process is awash with frustration and bad feeling, but the signs are that most participants regard Tuesday's debacle as a fiasco rather than a meltdown.

The general sense is that there are still a few days in which this week's initiative can be rescued. Most observers regard this as difficult but not impossible.

In particular the fiasco may cause some damage to the Ulster Unionist leader, David Trimble, in his battle to keep ahead of hardline opponents in the Belfast Assembly elections which have been called for 26 November.

They have already been questioning his negotiating skills and making the familiar charge that he should not be doing such business with the IRA and Sinn Fein.

It was already in question whether Mr Trimble would win enough electoral support to emerge as the leader of the largest Unionist bloc in the Assembly. The events of this week have been a setback for his prospects.

There may be other setbacks ahead if and when the authorities disclose other parts of the deal which has been worked out in recent months. These involve movement on issues such as policing and demilitarisation, which are likely to be viewed as concessions to republicans.

But in the meantime, Mr Trimble and others involved show no signs of walking away from the search for agreement. This was illustrated by the fact that he met Sinn Fein's president, Gerry Adams, on Tuesday night, even as waves of disappointment were engulfing political circles.

The prevailing sense is that what went wrong was essentially presentational rather than a problem of substance, and that the Trimble-Adams deal is still on hold and by no means defunct.

Mr Trimble has already pointed the finger at General John de Chastelain, the former Canadian soldier who is the sole witness at decommissioning events.

His description of the arms involved as "light, medium and heavy ordnance" was not satisfactory to the Ulster Unionist leader.

The matériel included Semtex explosive, rockets, mortars and rifles, but the general did not specifically say so in his report. Mr Trimble wants him to spell out more graphic details, believing they will carry much more helpful political impact.

Mr Trimble, Mr Blair and others are currently trying to persuade the general to "sex up" his report - not by exaggerating it but simply by supplying the extra details which would impress wavering Unionist voters.

There are, however, legal complications centring on how far the general feels able to go, since those who decommission weapons are guaranteed confidentiality under a scheme laid out in legislation.

General de Chastelain is thought to have discussed with his IRA linkman how the arms cache was to be described in his report, and he may have difficulties in adding to what he has said without consulting the IRA again on this point.

The British and Irish prime ministers Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern know exactly what weaponry has been put beyond use since they have been briefed by the general, but Mr Ahern said that disclosing the information could be seen as a damaging breach of confidence. It is believed that contact is being made with the IRA in an attempt to secure its agreement for a more detailed description to be given, but it is now yet known how it will react to this.

The fact that Tuesday's choreography broke down over this point puzzled many, since it was assumed it had been thrashed out beyond doubt during the many lengthy meetings involving Mr Trimble, Mr Adams and Martin McGuinness.

Mr Trimble has, however, said that in the meetings "they decline to discuss the details of decommissioning with us, on the usual argument that 'It's not for us, it's for other people [the IRA], we can't talk about it, we won't talk about it'".

"So that we're in a position of only being able to say, 'Well, we hope you'll tell other people that it has to be of this nature'. So there wasn't a deal on decommissioning." Mr Trimble added.

Comments