David McKittrick: Peace hopes are shattered by one down-beat speech

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Events in Belfast yesterday proved that there is no such thing as certainty in the Irish peace process and that nothing can be taken for granted.

A few weeks ago the British and Irish governments were glumly resigned to announcing new Assembly elections despite the absence of any agreement between the Belfast parties.

David Trimble and Gerry Adams had held many hours of talks but there was no breakthrough. Their whole negotiating exercise seeming to confirm yet again that republicans and Unionists could not reach accord.

The idea of an election without an agreement had some advantages, but it had many drawbacks too. New members would be elected, but without agreement there was little chance of an executive being formed.

The result would simply be a variation of the existing vacuum, with a return to devolution impossible. If that happened then the process would be, in the graphic description of Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, "goosed".

Violence has reduced considerably in recent months, but the two governments are nervous that in a continuing vacuum the peace process would eventually unravel. Their settled view is that the process must be underpinned by a solid political deal.

So when the mood changed in the Trimble-Adams talks, and against the odds, an understanding emerged, hats were tossed in the air in London, Dublin and elsewhere. It seemed that victory had finally been snatched from the jaws of defeat.

Republicans, Unionists and the British and Irish governments then worked out an intricate choreography for yesterday's events.

Tony Blair was to start the day by announcing Assembly elections for 26 November, which he duly did. Next, Gerry Adams made a speech using interesting new language while the IRA also spoke of peace.

But as so often happens, the republican language was slightly opaque and capable of different interpretations, and did not quite deliver the sense, which Unionists want to hear, that "the war is over".

The words were quickly followed by action, with the IRA confirming it had carried out its third act of de-commissioning.

Next up, as agreed, was General John de Chastelain, who went before the media to say he had witnessed a large amount of IRA weapons being decommissioned, presumably at some secret arms dump in the Irish Republic.

The IRA language had not been as sharp and precise as it could have been, and was not enough to give David Trimble the boost he needed if he were to go to the polls in triumph. Much, therefore, rested on the General giving a really impressive report.

But when it came, he was his usual taciturn self, speaking quietly and with little sense of drama.

When he had spoken observers said to each other: "Where's the beef? Where's the big boost that will win the election for Trimble?"

The Ulster Unionist leader delayed giving his reaction before eventually emerging to criticise the General - rather than Sinn Fein - and to say his party was delaying its response until next week.

Two theories immediately sprang up. One was that Mr Trimble was genuinely taken aback by the General's downbeat performance and felt that he had not carried out his role as he had been expected to.

The other theory is that Trimble supporters, having had their expectations raised by the big build-up, were dismayed to find he had extracted far less in the way of concessions from republicans than they had been led to believe.

In this view of events the Ulster Unionist leader hardened his stance in response to pressure from his party.

The transparency of decommissioning had been the subject of much negotiation in his contacts with Sinn Fein. It is said that republicans ruled out ideas such as showing video footage of weapons being put beyond use, and that the Unionist leader had reluctantly accepted this refusal.

So republicans have got an election which they have been demanding for many months, but they have made concessions which the Unionists have not reciprocated.

They will not be amused by the fact that they acceded to Trimble's demands but - so far at least - have received nothing in return.

Whatever the reason for the upset, the result is that a day which was supposed to herald a breakthrough has instead ended in messy breakdown.

It will all take some time to put right: if it cannot be fixed quickly, the election campaign could deteriorate into something of a shambles.

Whatever happens, mutual trust is bound to be a victim of yet another surprising day in the peace process.