Peace process may face deadlock, but the outlook is not entirely grim

Click to follow

The impasse in the peace process, and the probable suspension of the assembly that will result from it, will mean both pain and gain for the republican and Unionist communities.

The impasse in the peace process, and the probable suspension of the assembly that will result from it, will mean both pain and gain for the republican and Unionist communities.

One of the points where the desires of both overlap is on the existence of the assembly and its related north-south institutions. The Unionist and Protestant community has always been keen on having devolved government at Stormont and remains so.

Republicans and nationalists, by contrast, have until recently regarded a revived Stormont with something approaching dread, evoking as it did the most unpleasant memories of the old form of one-party Unionist rule.

The Catholic attitude has, however, been transformed by the terms of the Good Friday Agreement and the experience of the last few years.

The Agreement, in setting up the new assembly, festooned it with safeguards and conditions which in effect ruled out the re-emergence of any form of Protestant domination.

Instead, its terms put Sinn Fein and John Hume's nationalist party, the SDLP, at the heart of government, with the SDLP supplying the Deputy First Minister while the two parties ran five of the 10 government departments.

The nationalist representatives are generally regarded as having performed well, with the unexpected star of devolution being the education minister, Martin McGuinness.

The result has been the creation of strong pro-assembly sentiment throughout the nationalist community. Its suspension will therefore create a sense of loss across the board among both Catholics and Protestants.

This overlapping of interest may eventually be of great use when everyone returns in the autumn, as they inevitably will, for yet another try at cracking the all-too-familiar issues.

But in the short term the Protestant and Unionist community has placed even more emphasis on decommissioning than it has on devolution. The widespread sense among Protestants that republicans and nationalists have benefited disproportionately from the peace process has helped to create deadlock.

Protestants believe that they have lost out on most of the issues, including the early release of prisoners and changes in policing – especially the re-naming of the Royal Ulster Constabulary.

There has been ever-increasing stress on decommissioning, partly because it seems almost the only issue on which they might get a result. The weapons issue has as a result grown beyond being a political question to become a highly significant psychological touchstone as well.

It is therefore likely that there will be a high approval rating among Protestants for David Trimble's stance in resigning as First Minister, and for insisting that the IRA has not moved for enough for him to go back.

At the same time, few Protestants will find cause for actual celebration, for a number of reasons.

One is that while they may approve of Mr Trimble holding the line on guns, they will realise that he has done so at the cost of the assembly.

Secondly, they may reflect that this week's IRA move came in the context of yet more republican gains on policing. Not all of these gains can come into effect at the moment, since some will be held up by the suspension of devolution, but Sinn Fein has made yet more advances in this field.

On the republican side, the suspension will not be welcomed. But although the IRA move was rebuffed by Mr Trimble, it was welcomed by London, Dublin and General de Chastelain as a highly significant step. This will increase the organisation's credibility in the corridors of power whenever the next round of negotiations takes place.