David McKittrick: One more step towards peace in Northern Ireland

It is nearly, though not quite, possible to assert that the peace process is irreversible
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The Independent Online

It's probably not being too gloomy to say that there will probably never be perfect peace in Northern Ireland: there is too much unfinished history, too much difficult geography for that. At the same time only the perversely pessimistic would contend that, for all the dark stains and troubled legacies that remain, life has not improved hugely over the past decade.

Yet the political process has been stuck fast for the past year, ever since surreptitious IRA activity led Unionists to have Tony Blair pull the plug on the Belfast Assembly. Stormont's marble halls have been quiet ever since. So indeed has the country as a whole: its streets have enjoyed months which, while by no means trouble-free, have been described as the best summer for years.

While this has led to complacency in many quarters, all the major players, and especially Tony Blair, worry that it is still a dangerous vacuum. The consensus is that the process must be underpinned by a political agreement. And just about everybody knew that putting this together included, and in fact depended on, draining as much republican paramilitarism out of the system as possible. Loyalist paramilitarism is for the moment beyond the pale.

But republicans fervently want a new political accord which would bring back the Assembly they treasure so much. They have a formidable political team, and without the Assembly they have been like Manchester United without a league to play in. In return they will make big moves, in terms of both action and words, which are about to become visible. These can be viewed as sacrifices, but republicans hope they will be the prelude to gains on their part.

To date they have employed the shadow of the gunman very shrewdly in this process, keeping the spectre of the IRA hovering in the background to help extract concessions from the other players. But it is clear enough that the Unionist market would not bear much more of this, since Protestants have for years been losing faith in the Good Friday Agreement.

Getting the Assembly back means coming up with something to halt and hopefully reverse Protestant disillusion, which means giving David Trimble fresh pro-Agreement arguments.

At least one of his opponents within the Ulster Unionist party has been discreetly emitting very private signals - to London, Dublin and to the republicans - that if he were to become leader he would make a deal. While some have mulled this over as a highly intriguing notion, the bottom line is that nobody is prepared to invest political capital in it.

Similarly, hardly anybody really believes that elements within Paisleyism are pragmatic enough to envisage meaningful accommodation. This left David Trimble as the only show in town for the governments and republicans, even though his party is tormented, as he said at the weekend, by "the mixed message, the constant infighting".

The question of whether he can deliver a workable majority for cooperation in the wake of the planned election remains unanswered, but he has recently surprised many by showing fresh vigour in taking on his opponents. He and Gerry Adams have also shown an unexpected capacity to start getting on with each other. During the summer they shook hands for the first time, and observers speak wonderingly of their improved relationship.

Things have come a long way since Unionists clamoured that the only way to deal with republicans was through the SAS, internment, and other security measures. Sinn Fein too has come a long way since the days it suggested resettlement to help Unionists to emigrate to Britain.

For Sinn Fein and the IRA, the immediate feat is to provide enough assurance to sceptical Unionists without enraging republican grassroots with any sense that it is denouncing all those centuries of physical force tradition.

There are many non-republicans, some of them in surprising parts of the landscape, who strongly want an IRA of some sort to survive. They figure that if it does not, then other non-political republican outfits will sprout and start bombing all over again. It is nearly, though not quite, possible to assert that the process is irreversible. Again, all that history and geography, all that bitterness, all those splinter groups and all that residual paramilitary proficiency is still out there.

But few really think any such return to the bad old days is on the cards. Progress in the peace process has been tortuously slow - it is almost a decade since the first IRA ceasefire of 1994 - but most of it has been in the right direction. At least some of Tony Blair's grey hairs can be attributed to the hours and hours of sheer slog that have been needed, what Mr Adams has described as "tedious, mind-numbing effort".

Nor is this the end of it: the new deal does not amount to adding the finishing touches to the solution to the Irish question, or even to wrapping up the problems of political co-operation and paramilitarism. The uncertainties ahead are legion, not least in terms of who wins the election. But if these new moves succeed they should reinvigorate the peace process, bring politics back to life and take another important step away from war.