This is a mercy partly because it will concentrate the minds of the more fearful politicians who are often tempted to filibuster rather than cut a deal. But it's also a blessing in that it will limit the time available to those intent on using death and destruction to wreck the peace process.
If the past few months are anything to go by, the path to the May referendums will probably be punctuated by acts of violence from the more murderous of Northern Ireland's blizzard of acronyms. The CAC (Continuity Army Council), INLA (Irish National Liberation Army) and LVF (Loyalist Volunteer Force) will all be trying hard. All three of these have already shown their ability to unsettle the process with shootings and bombings; as the May deadline approaches they will try to derail it completely.
Although these are small groups their violence can have powerful effects. The two recent bombings of the Protestant towns of Moira and Portadown, which look to be the work of the CAC, embitter the Unionist community and give its politicians even less room to manoeuvre. They also, especially with the attack on the Orange citadel of Portadown, practically beg groups such as the LVF, which is based there, to hit back. And when they go out and kill Catholics, as they probably will, the republican grassroots will press the IRA to retaliate.
Thus groups which are outside the process can exert an indirect but powerful force on those inside the talks. Thus, too, the whole psychology of the process can be changed. Those Unionists, for example, who are prepared to contemplate a historic new deal involving republicans, look at the ruins of Moira and Portadown and wonder whether the peace process is meaningless. If they believe David Trimble, the bombs were the work of the treacherous IRA; if they believe the RUC, the CAC was responsible. Either way, as they are asked to make a serious and politically costly effort to reach out to the other side, the prospect is that some republicans are going to keep on bombing anyway, settlement or no settlement.
For the exercise to be successful in May, the two governments are going to have to come up with something which was once unthinkable, and which is still a very tall order. That is to say, it will have to be something that David Trimble and Gerry Adams both feel they can go live with. A couple of years ago the very idea would have been laughed out of court: how on earth, it would be asked, could it be expected that a Unionist and a republican might find common ground?
It is still the case that the ultimate aims of Unionism and republicanism are logically incompatible, since the first wants to strengthen the union while the latter wants to break it. But there have been tantalising glimpses of some interim settlement, in the here and now rather than the green or Orange utopian mists, that might allow both to co-exist, however uneasily. But it hardly needs to be said that there are an extraordinary number of difficulties to be overcome before this could become reality. For one thing, there are clearly factions on both the republican and Unionist sides who want nothing to do with the talks process.
This opposition is most visible on the Unionist side where the Rev Ian Paisley, who two years ago took more than a third of the Unionist vote, regularly denounces the whole thing. And with four of David Trimble's ten MPs urging him to walk out of the talks one can see why he constantly looks over his shoulder.
The pattern is different on the republican side, but the fact that the IRA carried out two recent killings - sanctioned, by all accounts, by its leaders - shows that not everyone in the republican movement feels that the first priority is to keep Sinn Fein in talks. Somebody in there either wants them out, or is pretty much indifferent on the issue.
The fact that Sinn Fein are undergoing a two-week suspension in the "sin- bin" is a further source of instability. Although Sinn Fein were among the principal architects of the process, many of the republican grassroots, angered by the expulsion, now question the value of a return to talks. They probably will go back in, though not meekly.
The weeks after that should determine whether or not the talks process will or will not work. Most of the main participants will be heading off to Washington for the jollifications and politicking of St Patrick's Day, March 17, after which will come the most crucial period of all. Most involved now agree that they should be spirited away by the two governments, away from the media's questing microphones, for a final intensive negotiating session. By that stage the parties should have in front of them a draft agreement, drawn up perhaps by London and Dublin or perhaps by talks chairman George Mitchell.
This make-or-break session is to be slotted in between St Patrick's Day and Good Friday, which this year falls on April 10. If a deal is struck then, the weeks after Easter will be taken up by the referendum campaigns, with those supporting the new deal attempting to stave off the objections of those opposed to it.
It is unrealistic to expect that all this will take place against a background of peace: CAC, INLA, LVF and so on will see it as their duty to wreck the thing. There might also be splits inside the IRA or within the loyalist organisations involved in the talks, who may find it impossible to swallow the kind of compromises that will be necessary. A glance back shows just how many obstacles are strewn across the path to the referendums. And even after successful referendums, more difficulties will lie ahead as the representatives of traditions who have opposed each other for centuries are called upon to cooperate to make new structures work.
The deaths and political disagreements of recent months have had a dispiriting effect in Belfast, ensuring that the old bitternesses remain as jagged as ever. But disillusionment has not yet become despair, and hope is still alive: hope that for all the setbacks things are still moving, however slowly, in a positive direction; hope that all those deadly obstacles may yet be surmounted.Reuse content