Ulster: Arms issue is all that can stop a startling revolution

TONY BLAIR and others involved have designed this week to be a make-or-break one for Northern Ireland, a potentially momentous negotiating session designed to resolve the decommissioning issue and break through into a new political dispensation.

In the event of success progress should be swift, for a complex new superstructure of administration is in place, ready to roll once the word is given. But failure will bring uncertainty and vacuum; and political vacuum has often been filled with violence.

The decommissioning issue is the only thing now standing in the way of the formation of an unprecedented new form of government. This would be headed by an executive which would include members of David Trimble's Ulster Unionists, of Sinn Fein, of the nationalist SDLP and of the Rev Ian Paisley's DUP.

On the face of it the question is simply one of the destruction of terrorist hardware, but everyone knows that it is much more complicated. At the heart of it lies not paramilitary capacity but generations of mistrust and antagonism.

This can be seen in the fact that most observers, including security experts, regard de-commissioning not as a security issue but a political one. Even a completely disarmed IRA would represent a continuing threat since, if the conditions were right, it could always rise Phoenix-like from the ashes once more, as republican groups have done so many times in the past.

As this period of negotiations opens, the republican community and nationalists as a whole seem as committed as ever to the Good Friday agreement. Well over 90 per cent of nationalists, north and south, voted for the accord in last year's referendums.

Almost all southern nationalists, and probably most northern ones, saw the agreement as a vehicle in which Catholics and Protestants could work together in agreed new institutions. This did not mean that all the Catholics love all the Protestants; many of them dislike unionism as a cause and would see the accord as a way of working against it.

But, whether motivated by the hope of a new beginning or by tribalism, either way they remain united in favour. Where they look divided is in their attitude towards decommissioning, since many nationalists, probably a majority, have a much more flexible attitude than that expressed by Gerry Adams.

There is opinion poll and anecdotal evidence that a great many nationalists think that if de-commissioning is necessary to bring the new institutions into being then it should happen. This is the position of the leaders of all major nationalist groupings with the exceptions of Sinn Fein and the IRA.

Tony Blair's hope must be that Gerry Adams, faced with the choice of movement on decommissioning or the collapse of an agreement so enthusiastically endorsed by Irish nationalism, will opt for the former. But exerting too much pressure on Mr Adams could be a dangerous business, for there have been many warnings that decommissioning could rip the IRA apart.

There are many in the security field who would welcome such a sundering, having for years favoured a "split and crush" approach towards the IRA. This is not, however, Government policy, which is that a unified IRA is preferable to a new collection of small but deadly republican terrorist groups, uninterested in any peace process and dedicated only to the bomb and the bullet.

On the unionist side, some of this has already happened in both the political and paramilitary spheres, where parties and terror groups proliferate. A third or more of Ulster Protestants, at a guess, want nothing to do with any administration which includes Sinn Fein.

Many of those, unsurprisingly, support Ian Paisley, but a fair few are associated with David Trimble's party and thus limit his room for manoeuvre. They include not just voters but also people throughout the party structures, including many of his Westminster MPs.

Over the last year Mr Trimble has shifted away from the Good Friday agreement's ambiguity on decommissioning and has appropriated many of the arguments of the accord's opponents. His position is that he will take no part in an executive before the IRA carries out actual decommissioning. This stance seems to make a fudge or a compromise very difficult.

The logic of the position is that either the republicans will cave in at the last moment; that they will not and stalemate will follow; or that Mr Trimble will execute a public climb-down.

All this is to be viewed against a background of much confusion and much fracturing within unionism, rendering the position there highly unpredictable. This crucial week thus begins with much hope but also with much uncertainty, and no guarantee of success.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Developer

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you familiar with the sayin...

Recruitment Genius: Hospitality Assistant

£6 - £8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This care organisation take pride in del...

Recruitment Genius: Care Worker

£6 - £7 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This care organisation take pride in del...

Recruitment Genius: Marketing Assistant

£18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has ari...

Day In a Page

John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

Forget little green men

Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

Dying dream of Doctor Death

Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy
UK heatwave: Temperature reaches 39.8 degrees on Central Line - the sweatiest place in London

39.8 degrees recorded on Tube

There's hot (London) and too damn hot (the Underground). Simon Usborne braved the Central line to discover what its passengers suffer
Kitchens go hi-tech: From robot chefs to recipe-shopping apps, computerised cooking is coming

Computerised cooking is coming

From apps that automatically make shopping lists from your recipe books to smart ovens and robot chefs, Kevin Maney rounds up innovations to make your mouth water
Jessie Cave interview: The Harry Potter star has published a feminist collection of cartoons

Jessie Cave's feminist cartoons

The Harry Potter star tells Alice Jones how a one-night stand changed her life
Football Beyond Borders: Even the most distruptive pupils score at homework club

Education: Football Beyond Borders

Add football to an after-school homework club, and even the naughtiest boys can score
10 best barbecue books

Fire up the barbie: 10 best barbecue books

We've got Bibles to get you grilling and smoking like a true south American pro
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power
Ron Dennis exclusive: ‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

Ron Dennis shrugs off a poor start to the season in an exclusive interview, and says the glory days will come back
Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most