The chances of the Hillsborough weapons initiative succeeding received a major boost yesterday when David Trimble's occasionally wayward deputy John Taylor forecast that the scheme would work.
Mr Taylor said he believed there was a 90 per cent chance that the Ulster Unionist party's 860-member ruling council would approve the plan, thus leading to the revival of devolved government by 22 May.
The council holds the key to whether the plan, to put IRA weapons beyond use rather than formally decommission them, will work. While its decisions are notoriously difficult to forecast, the veteran Mr Taylor is regarded as a reasonably reliable weather-vane of Protestant opinion.
The scheme has received support from all parts of the political spectrum, both inside and outside Northern Ireland, apart from the obvious exceptions of unionist hardliners. Although the internal critics of Mr Trimble seem to have been taken by surprise by lastweek's breakthrough, theywill have time to regroup because the meeting of the council will probably not take place until 20 May.
The two internationally respected figures who are to inspect the IRA arms dumps are to fly to Belfast next Monday to begin their work. Cyril Ramaphosa, the former secretary general of Nelson Mandela's African National Congress, and Martti Ahtisaari, the former president of Finland, will receive both political and security briefings. The move follows the IRA's statement at the weekend to put its arms "verifiably beyond use".
Peter Mandelson, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, told MPs he regarded the IRA statement as "a very significant development". He said the chief constable was reviewing the scope for moving ahead with "initial measures" in response to the lowering of the threat by the IRA. Army patrols of republican areas are likely to be reduced initially.