A new way of talking

The frustrations and disagreements in Belfast are testimony to real progress, says Fintan O'Toole
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n Belfast on Friday night there were four weddings and a funeral. One by one, Tony Blair, Bertie Ahern, John Hume and Gerry Adams stepped up to the microphones at Stormont Castle to declare the start of a long and happy life for the partnership of unionism and nationalism. And then a sombre David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party and First Minister of Northern Ireland, came forward, not to praise the deal that was on offer but to bury it with words such as "unfair" and "fundamentally flawed". It was, even by the standards of Northern Ireland, a bizarre spectacle. If, after five days in each other's company, the key participants seemed hardly to be on the same planet, what chance is there that the peace process can stay alive?

In the resolution of bloody conflicts, the difficult can be achieved quickly but the impossible takes a little longer. After the frustration, tedium and sheer pig-headedness of last week's inconclusive negotiations in Belfast, it is well to remember how recently any kind of deal on the future of Northern Ireland seemed impossible. And to keep in mind, too, one simple and undeniable fact: dozens of people are walking around, hale and hearty, who would, without the peace process, be dead. Even if the whole thing were to collapse now, wouldn't that alone have justified the attempt to make it work?

So before we lose patience at the apparently endless manoeuvring over the decommissioning of paramilitary weapons and call down a plague on the houses of both Ulster unionism and Irish republicanism, we should recall that haggling and posturing are a lot better than murdering and maiming.

With yet another Drumcree standoff about to unfold today, bringing with it all the accumulated resentments of 30 years of reciprocal violence, anyone who has forgotten the alternative to long nights at Stormont may soon, alas, receive all too vivid a reminder. Drumcree dramatises the clash of cultures in Northern Ireland between a resurgent Catholic nationalism embittered by a long history of discrimination and a Protestant unionism at once enraged and disoriented by what it sees as three decades of loss and betrayal. That we are about to embark on this ritual battle of wills for the fifth year running might suggest that nothing has changed and that the peace process is a cruel illusion. If there is not enough common ground for agreement about whether some men in bowler hats can walk down a road, how could there have been any possibility of agreement on the infinitely more delicate business of bringing the political wing of a terrorist army into a devolved government?

But there is another way of looking at it. In a sense the very frustration of this week's inconclusive talks at Stormont is a mark of the astonishing success of the peace process. We are frustrated, not because there is no solution to the Northern Ireland problem, but because a settlement that once seemed impossible is now so tantalisingly close to becoming a reality.

In effect, what made complete agreement so elusive on Friday is that the immediate future seems too good to be true. In a movement as ideologically driven as the Sinn Fein/IRA axis an acceptance that decommissioning is on the cards is tantamount to a commitment that it will happen. But for unionists battered by years of being under siege, it is hard to come to terms with the fact that the IRA is on the brink of dissolving itself. The demand for "certainty" that may yet scupper the whole deal reflects an inability to believe that the prize on offer is not booby-trapped. In that, the peace process is the victim of its own success. By creating possibilities that could not have been envisaged a few years ago, it has pushed unionists into a place they had never imagined. The anguish they are experiencing now is a function of the sheer difficulty of adjusting your view of reality.

The Good Friday agreement was, and remains, an achievement so brilliant that it gives politics a good name. None of its opponents, either on the extreme fringes of republicanism or on the fundamentalist wing of unionism have ever articulated even a vaguely credible alternative to the way it opens up possibilities for each side without closing them down for the other. But the agreement gave certain hostages to fortune. What's happening at the moment is that fortune is demanding a heavy ransom before it releases them.

The first hostage was that, in order for the process to be possible at all, Sinn Fein had to be encouraged to place a rhetorical distance between itself and the IRA. There was a belief - ultimately justified by the course of events - that if Sinn Fein was allowed to pretend it was a normal political party, it would begin to behave like one. Slowly and carefully, Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness and their colleagues had to be moved out of the category of untouchable terrorists - who, by definition, could not be involved in democratic negotiations - and into the category of recognised political representatives.

That strategy was both necessary and successful. But what was good for negotiating a peace deal was bad for negotiating the decommissioning of IRA weapons. It allowed Sinn Fein to present itself as merely a political party like any other, representing its electorate and entitled to share in power purely on that basis. It could insist that weapons were a matter for the IRA, a faceless organisation out there somewhere beyond the reach of the political process. Sinn Fein could take all the gains of the peace process - the release of IRA prisoners, for example - but insist that the bill, in terms of decommissioning, should be sent to someone else.

Ultimately, unionists (and, indeed, mainstream nationalists) were never going to buy that. At some stage, Sinn Fein would have to be forced to accept that, for the purposes of the peace process, it does represent the IRA. That, essentially, is what the current row is about.

The other hostages of Good Friday have an important bearing on the way the row has been conducted. One of them has to do with language. The Good Friday deal was all about the creative use of ambiguity. It was achieved by stretching words as far as they could possibly go, constructing sentences that seem, at one and the same time, to underwrite the partition of Ireland and the union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and to accept the legitimacy of all lawful attempts to destroy them.

But the one thing that doesn't yield to ambiguity is weaponry. The questions that come into play when decommissioning is being discussed - when? how much? - are completely different to the questions about the future of Northern Ireland which the agreement tries to answer. That is why decommissioning had to be left aside on Good Friday. It is also why it proved so difficult last week. The parties, especially Sinn Fein, were being asked, almost literally, to speak a different language to the one they had grown used to using in the rest of the process. But since the language that is most familiar in Northern Ireland is that of blood, shame and despair, the attempt, however tortuous, to find a new form of words is well worth the effort.

Fintan O'Toole is a columnist with the `Irish Times'.