Now Trimble's task to sell arms deal to his party

David Trimble's indication that his Ulster Unionist Party might relax its position on IRA arms decommissioning potentially represents a seismic shift in Northern Ireland politics.

The first reports of a refinement sent tremors of excitement through a peace process which has been languishing in the doldrums since last month's suspension of the fledgling cross-community Executive.

The Ulster Unionists have been at loggerheads with republicans on the decommissioning issue for so long that the idea of a shift in emphasis instantly awakened thoughts of a breakthrough. It could mean that new fertile areas will be explored in a search for an alternative to decommissioning.

The recent political tone has been one of overwhelming despondency, given that the events of January and February appeared to signal that the entire peace process had seized up on the issue of "no guns, no government".

The IRA had demonstrated that arms decommissioning was not on immediate offer, and the Unionists seemed to be refusing to budge from the stance that they would not go back into government with Sinn Fein without IRA guns "up front".

In recent weeks, the party seemed to be digging itself even deeper into the decommissioning trench, with Mr Trimble apparently giving up much of his already limited room for manoeuvre. He recently pledged to refer any policy change on arms to the Ulster Unionist council, the 800-strong body which has always insisted that decommissioning is essential.

Mr Trimble set up a key committee on the issue which included Jeffrey Donaldson MP, who has been implacable on decommissioning and disapproves of the peace process.

Yesterday's groundbreaking remarks by Mr Trimble raise the question of whether he can successfully sell to his party - up to half of which is highly sceptical to the peace process - such a dramatic shift in approach.

The party, and the Protestant community, have been divided on many issues, but the arms question has been one of the few which united Unionism. That solidarity has been built on decommissioning, a demand which many will not drop.

The problem for Mr Trimble is that, while Unionists momentarily occupied the high ground when the Executive fell last month, the idea of getting guns from the IRA has come to be seen as a non-starter. The reality is that persisting with the decommissioning demand effectively guarantees that devolution will not be restored. The question now is whether republicans can come up with an alternative which will assure Unionists that the IRA's war is over.

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