David McKittrick: The amazing pact that could finish off the IRA

Many now think a deal between the republican and loyalist extremes is at some stage inevitable
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Nobody can remember exactly how many rounds of talks the Irish peace process has seen over the years, but the sequence which kicked off in Belfast yesterday is different from all the others.

Nobody can remember exactly how many rounds of talks the Irish peace process has seen over the years, but the sequence which kicked off in Belfast yesterday is different from all the others.

Gerry Adams was there as usual, as leader of the republican movement, but his old adversary David Trimble has now been displaced as the key figure in Unionism by the Reverend Ian Paisley. Anglo-Irish politics thus has a completely new template. A significant amount of Trimble-Adams chemistry had developed over the years, but there is absolutely no Paisley-Adams relationship: they have never met or spoken.

When Paisley overtook Trimble, in two elections in the last 10 months, most supporters of the peace process were dismayed and appalled. The same elections established Sinn Fein as the primary voice of Northern Ireland nationalism. The arithmetic was as clear as it was unwelcome: in this year's European election the DUP and Sinn Fein together took 58 per cent of the vote. There is a new political landscape, and these two sworn enemies are the tallest trees in it.

During the 10 years of IRA ceasefires, Sinn Fein has become expert at tactical compromises in negotiation. But the DUP arose from Protestant fundamentalism: when its representatives mentioned "Sinn Fein-IRA", for example, they would hiss the words as though speaking of the very devil.

At first, only a few thought any deal between the republican and loyalist extremes was even imaginable, but as the months went by, engagement between the two sides stopped looking impossible. Many, in fact, now think it is, at some stage, inevitable.

The DUP's rhetoric has become remarkably non-confrontational. Paisley's deputy, Peter Robinson, declared of Sinn Fein: "There will never be a loving relationship between our two parties, but we do not need to like someone in order to work within the main structure."

Paisley himself, who is 78, has not been well, but is as sharp as ever. He is quite capable of pulling the plug if he feels that Robinson and the party's more pragmatic elements - who are more interested in power than Paisley ever was - are going too far.

It is an extraordinary choice for the Protestant patriarch. He could cap his long career by leading his party into power, or to stand pat as the man who, whatever the temptation, would not soil his record with compromise. His possible choice will be put to the test this month when Tony Blair and Taoiseach Bertie Ahern closet the parties at Leeds Castle in Kent in yet another attempt to reach a new agreement.

It hardly needs saying that achieving such a breakthrough will be a tall order, given the people and the issues involved. The DUP want, among other things, the decommissioning of all IRA weapons, and a conclusive end to all paramilitary activity.

Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein has used intriguing language suggesting that the IRA may move on the arms issue, and republican leaders do not seem to be frightened of the idea of the IRA winding down its activities. The terrorist organisation has already steadily reduced its activities: the times when it killed dozens each year have long gone, and it has very deliberately embarked on a gradual run-down of violence. This suggests that it may contemplate an end to paramilitary activity.

Today, the republican movement's cutting edge is not the IRA but Sinn Fein, which has made huge electoral strides and gained many advances in negotiations. The cool calculation may be that republican power need no longer come from the barrel of a gun.

Both Sinn Fein and the DUP want movement on policing, and say they want stable institutions - the Belfast Assembly went through repeated suspensions and is presently in cold storage. There is potential common ground here to be built on.

The greatest convergence of interest, however, goes back to that electoral arithmetic, and to mutual dependence. Both are eager for government, but both know they cannot govern without each other.

In purely party terms, the two already have their respective rivals on the ropes. Should they reach a deal, fresh Assembly elections would in all likelihood completely floor the other nationalist and Unionist parties. This would effectively allow the parties led by Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams to run Northern Ireland together, relegating the others to also-rans.

If it happened, and if it held, it would be a magnificent prize for society as a whole. In the process, the IRA would go out of business, for the DUP will not go into government with a still-active IRA.

Of course, many formidable obstacles stand in the way of agreement emerging this month; but even if there is no immediate breakthrough, the logic propelling these old enemies to work together will still prevail. The DUP might put off a deal until next year, believing that the next Westminster election will provide another hammering for Trimble. Delay would thus consolidate their position. It would also give their grass-roots fundamentalists time to adjust to the amazing concept that "Sinn Fein-IRA" might some day give way to a historic new coalition of "Sinn Fein-DUP."