David McKittrick: Here's one peace process that won't be unravelling

In Belfast, there is little sense that things face either collapse or a lurch into limbo
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The Independent Online

The sword of Damocles has gone from Northern Ireland. Even if the present political talks should break down amid rancour and bitterness, no eruption of large-scale violence will follow. Instead there will simply be, in due course, yet another round of negotiation, probably after a May general election. And if this round of talks does not work, the next one probably will.

The sword of Damocles has gone from Northern Ireland. Even if the present political talks should break down amid rancour and bitterness, no eruption of large-scale violence will follow. Instead there will simply be, in due course, yet another round of negotiation, probably after a May general election. And if this round of talks does not work, the next one probably will.

This is negotiation at a snail's pace. But the prevailing emotion is one of frustration rather than desperation; it used to be that lives could depend on the outcome, but nobody believes that any more. Fringe groups remain an unpredictable menace but the IRA is not going back to war and now the Ulster Defence Association, the largest of the loyalist outfits, has begun to think deeply about its future.

Many groups and individuals who once opposed the peace process have come to appreciate its benefits and the transformation it has brought to Northern Ireland, even if the peace is imperfect. Kofi Annan said as much when he visited Belfast last month and declared: "Your efforts to create a better world for your children have been a source of inspiration and hope to people in many other countries.

"The world can learn from your commitment, courage and imagination in seeking solutions and fostering trust between communities which had been at loggerheads for decades." The UN secretary general went on to deliver a warning that peace processes can run out of steam, with more than half of them collapsing within five years while others "fall into a sort of limbo of no war, no peace". In Belfast, however, there is little sense that things face either collapse or a lurch into limbo. It may be dangerous complacency, but most feel a political deal to seal the peace is inevitable at some stage.

In practical terms, this means clinching a deal between the champions of Unionism and nationalism, that is the Rev Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein. The Paisley party, to resort to another classical allusion, crossed a Rubicon when it engaged with Sinn Fein - not face-to-face, but via the British and Irish government - on the shape of a new deal.

The DUP wants IRA arms decommissioning and assurances that the IRA will go out of business; republicans in return want assurances that the DUP will form a government with Sinn Fein. In mid-September, Tony Blair thought an understanding could be reached within weeks, but agreement has proved elusive. The IRA would reportedly allow clergymen to witness weaponry being put beyond use; the DUP wants photographic evidence as well.

The Government longs for an acceptable bargain to be struck as quickly as possible but, having led the two horses to water, it cannot make them drink. The republicans are up for a deal but the DUP are less easy to fathom.

This is the DUP's first taste of negotiation at the highest level, having taken over as the principal voice of Unionism just a year ago. There is much speculation about the state of opinion within the party. One nationalist said: "We hear that one lot wants to do a deal now, another lot will do a deal but only after the election, and a third lot doesn't want to do a deal at all." But much of that is guesswork, and critically no one is sure which way Mr Paisley himself will go. A decision on his part to delay until next year would however be unsurprising, given all his decades of obstruction and protest.

He and his party have learnt much from David Trimble's experience in negotiating with republicans. They have learnt that every last detail of any accord has to be nailed down, with no room for ambiguity. They have also learned from republicans, for like them the DUP is on a journey from the politics of automatic opposition to a new phase of negotiation. Republicans showed that caution and time may be needed to bring the more militant grassroots along on an odyssey. The DUP may well conclude that a year as the top dogs in Unionism has not been long enough to accustom its own militants to the realities of the peace process. Besides, the DUP and Sinn Fein both believe that the next Westminster election will strengthen their hands. The two parties grow with each election, and they look forward to taking Westminster seats from their rivals.

Those rivals, David Trimble's Ulster Unionists and the moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party, have been weakened in successive elections and everyone expects them to slump further next time round. If they continue on their downward trend, the DUP and Sinn Fein will have confirmed themselves as the only two parties who really count.

At that point, everyone would have to acknowledge that the only alternatives are either to remain locked in sterile confrontation or to start governing the country. And the DUP, once established at the head of government, are likely to be there permanently. That would be great news for the DUP as a party, but it could only happen if it reaches accommodation with republicans. And that would be great news for everyone else, for it would mean that the gun had gone from politics.

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