Quietly, carefully, a path was cleared for the IRA

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The Independent Online

For the past few months, ever since the Assembly was suspended in February, many people have been quietly terrified by the state of the peace process. The suspension created what looked like a political wasteland.

For the past few months, ever since the Assembly was suspended in February, many people have been quietly terrified by the state of the peace process. The suspension created what looked like a political wasteland.

Although there was no instant return to war, it seemed only a matter of time before the stricken process would unravel, leading to a resumption of violent conflict. Unionists and republicans were not speaking to each other, and London and Dublin seemed at odds.

That was the way it looked right until Friday night, when Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern suddenly produced what may turn out to be a magic formula for ending the arms deadlock and reviving the Assembly and executive.

Their plan was for devolved government to be reinstated later this month, while the IRA promised to put its guns beyond use. The plan has many steps and stages, as well as many loose ends that have yet to be publicly defined.

But it had the imprimatur of the IRA and it had been given the nod by the Ulster Unionist Party leader, David Trimble, who believed it could be sold to his members. Furthermore, this time it was all worked out quietly and methodically, line by line and step by step, by the two governments, the Unionists and the republicans.

This approach showed much had been learnt from the February suspension fiasco, when urgent last-minute meetings were being concluded in obscure parts of Ireland at four in the morning. The overheated atmosphere was averted last week, when careful preparation was the order of the day.

There was certainly last-minute activity but it was structured rather than frantic. The result is yet another transformation, yet another rescue operation in the style of the perils of Pauline, yet another demonstration of the incredible resilience of this peace process.

Furthermore, the signs are that this time the IRA has finally put itself in the territory of locking away its guns for good. We may never know what its exact game-plan was over the past decade, but it is a fair bet that it would have held on to its weaponry if possible.

It has now concluded that is not possible to keep the guns in the background as a threat, even if only an implicit one. This may have been because the final choice was looming: the IRA could have either the guns or the Good Friday Agreement, but not both. It has opted for the Agreement, with its Assembly and its cross-border institutions. In republican terms this is an amazing step, in that it shows the value that both the IRA and Sinn Fein have come to place on what are essentially Northern Ireland institutions. Republicans have always regarded Northern Ireland as an illegitimate statelet, set up by the duplicitous British and run with an iron hand by bigoted Unionists. They have seen their historic purpose as destroying it by force.

In allowing outsiders to inspect their arms dumps, the sanctum sanctorum of republicanism, they now are signalling that they can advance their aims not by killing people but by the arts of politics, propaganda, persuasion and moral force.

There is none the less a long way to go in this process, with many tricky steps to be taken first in the next few weeks and then over the next year. All the experience of the process is that there will be more rocky periods ahead, since progress has come about not smoothly but by an alternation of crisis and resolution.

The process still lacks real personal trust among many of the participants, which means that almost everything has to be written down in black and white and then thrown open to public inspection. Yet in recent years both Gerry Adams and Mr Trimble have managed to convince most, though not all, of their critics that they are committed to the process. The new plan does not yet contain the clarity and certainty many have wished to see, with many important details yet to be spelt out. But the scheme has a deeper philosophy than the practicalities of checking bunkers to see whether a few Kalashnikovs have gone missing. The IRA will not surrender weapons to the army or the RUC, and nor will it formally announce that its campaign is over for ever.

Yet there is a more convincing underlying guarantee than the mechanics of inspections. If Martin McGuinness is reinstalled as a minister of the devolved government, it is not conceivable to think of him remaining in the post if the IRA goes back to bombing and killing.

"Beyond use" means what it says: no more shooting. Sinn Fein ministers would be held politically accountable for any IRA killings, and more or less automatically propelled from office should any occur. This concept, the idea of Martin McGuinness as political hostage, is perhaps the most convincing guarantee that the IRA war is over.