Fraught times for Northern Ireland but hope remains

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The Independent Online

After a reconnaissance mission to Belfast last week, President George Bush's new point man on Northern Ireland has just reported back to him a sense that things are, in essence, desperate but not serious.

Having spent some days meeting the main players, Richard Haass did not actually use that phrase. But he said that although people were uneasy and concerned about the uncharted waters ahead, there was "no sense that we have passed a point where things cannot be retrieved politically".

That actually caught the prevailing public mood pretty well. There have been so many crises in the peace process over so many years that the general assumption on the streets is that this one, too, will somehow be surmounted.

While this may indeed once again eventually turn out to be the case, there are still many factors to give supporters of the peace process sleepless nights over the next month. For while the process has great inherent strength, it now has to overcome two huge challenges.

The first is that there is every sign that one of its central figures, the First Minister, David Trimble, will resign from the post by midnight tomorrow. The second is that there is no sign at all, according to republicans themselves as well as political and security sources, that the IRA is going to decommission its weapons.

The Trimble resignation was being increasingly treated yesterday as inevitable and unavoidable. The key point, however, is that while this will obviously have a destabilising effect it need not and should not be fatal to the Good Friday Agreement.

At some stage the Executive's two Paisleyite ministers may fulfil their threat to resign. This would further raise political tensions but again need not be fatal, unless perhaps it spooks Mr Trimble's Ulster Unionist Party into pulling out its three departmental ministers, too.

The Trimble resignation is designed to start the clock ticking. If the First Minister goes, he must be reinstated or replaced within six weeks. If not, the British Government must either call a general Assembly election or suspend the entire apparatus of the Agreement.

Everybody believes that such an election would result in a further weakening of the centre parties and further gains for the Paisleyites and Sinn Fein. Most also believe that suspension, though preferable to an election, would be a highly risky business, creating a dangerous vacuum.

The six weeks that follow the Trimble resignation are up on 12 August. The authorities are now in effect bringing the deadline forward to the end of July, partly to avoid the kind of confused frenetic activity that preceded last year's suspension. This means July will bring pressure-filled meetings, shuttle diplomacy and mounting tension. It will also bring rising tension on the streets, since the annual Drumcree Orange marching confrontation is coming round again.

The army is drafting 2,000 extra men in the expectation of trouble: already there is loyalist paramilitary graffiti in Belfast proclaiming "Roll on Drumcree 2001". There is always bother at Drumcree time: the only question is how bad it will get.

Given that Mr Trimble has already carefully tied his own personal sword of Damocles above his head, all eyes will be on the IRA and Sinn Fein. Everybody believes the ball is in their court, since if there is not some significant IRA move on weaponry there will almost certainly be suspension.

The IRA is not about to make any big sacrifice to save Mr Trimble, partly because it does not want to be seen to be dancing to his tune, but more fundamentally because the belief has pervaded the political world that his days as Ulster Unionist leader are numbered.

But although concern for his fate would not cause the IRA to act, the fate of the Assembly and the other Good Friday Agreement institutions might. The IRA and Sinn Fein are skilful at resisting pressure but they are aware that just about everybody involved in the process thinks it is their turn to move.

They have also come to place great value on the Agreement, which has delivered to them ministerial office and a rich harvest of votes. They may be prepared to deliver something on guns, therefore, not because of Unionist demands but because it is in their own interest.

If they do decide to take a real initiative, however, it is unlikely to come in the next few days. The chances are that it will come, if at comes at all, after many crises and fraught moments in the weeks ahead.

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