A fresh jet of adrenalin was sent coursing through the Northern Ireland peace process yesterday when the Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble made an important new move on IRA arms.
Mr Trimble, in Washington for St Patrick's Day celebrations, signalled that the Belfast cross-community executive could be reformed without prior arms decommissioning by the IRA. It was seen as a significant move away from his party's "no guns, no government" stance.
He added: "I'm prepared to recommend to my party that we try again but I can only do that where there is good reason to believe it will work." Mr Trimble said it must be made clear the war was over: "Obviously it would be significant even just to say that the conflict is over. I cannot say that that would be enough. Actions speak louder than words."
His words came as a major surprise to most involved in the peace process, which has been at a low ebb since the executive was suspended last month. Many major Belfast politicians are in Washington and there have been contacts between them, but no significant initiative had been expected.
The politicians, including the Irish Prime Minister, Bertie Ahern, Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Mandelson and Bill Clinton and his wife Hillary, attended a gala dinner in Washington on Thursday night.
London, Dublin and Washington will now seek to explore the import of the Trimble remarks in the hope they may turn out to be a breakthrough in the decommissioning logjam.
The governments will be keen to see whether Unionists are prepared to soften their demand for immediate decommissioning and consider instead other means of providing assurance that the IRA will not go back to violence.
It has refused to decommission at an early stage, but there have been hints that republicans are prepared to move in other ways, perhaps by providing solemn assurances that they will not resort to violence.
Mr Trimble's remarks stirred excitement, suspicion and concern. When the Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams, was told Mr Trimble had made the remarks and wished to meet him, he replied: "I met him yesterday briefly over lunch and he never said anything to me about a meeting."
Within anti-Good Friday Unionist circles there was surprise and alarm. Lagan Valley MP Jeffrey Donaldson, one of Mr Trimble's critics within his own party, said: "I know nothing about this. I haven't been consulted about it. I heard it through the BBC."
He said there would be a lot of opposition within the party if the proposal was that it should abandon its pledge that it would not sit in an executive "with a fully armed terrorist organisation." He added: "People would find it absolutely difficult to understand. I would be astonished if that was to be the proposal. I would be amazed if the party was to abandon its manifesto commitment."
Another Unionist MP, William Thompson, went further, saying: "This is totally unacceptable to the majority of party members. David Trimble was fooled once before about going into an executive with Sinn Fein-IRA. He will be fooled again."
Any firm new proposal from Mr Trimble will certainly be subjected to searching examination at his party's annual general meeting, which is to take place next weekend.
The Trimble move followed a heartfelt plea for peace and agreement from President Clinton. He declared: "Whatever the differences, it's not worth another life, not one. It's not worth another day's delay, much less a year. We have to find a way to put this back on track and if we do everyone wins."
In Northern Ireland, meanwhile, the Archbishop of Canterbury urged people to overcome the difficulties in the peace process by "acknowledging and transcending" the past. In a St Patrick's Day message delivered in Ireland's religious capital, Armagh, Dr George Carey warned that traditionalism became an enemy of the Gospel when it imprisoned people in the past.Reuse content