Donald Macintyre: Hope returns to the peace process at the eleventh hour

'The Ulster Unionists would be wise to proceed with the canniness that they have not always shown in the past'
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Hardly for the first time, the republicans yesterday showed themselves to be masters of timing. It remains to be seen whether the IRA's latest engagement with General John de Chastelain, the Canadian general entrusted with overseeing decommissioning, is enough to break the impasse threatening the Northern Ireland peace process. But what was immediately clear, as Ulster Unionists digested the general's statement in the run-up to last night's meeting of their party officers, was that it has at the very least complicated what was set to be an unequivocally negative reaction from the party to the package produced by the two governments. For nobody in the party was ready to accept the new package without movement on decommissioning.

First there were hopes that the IRA's famously psedonymous spokesman P O'Neill might make some definitive statement on decommissioning over the weekend. Then hopes started to evaporate; it hardly seemed likely that the deadline-phobic Provisionals would make any advance so soon before key decisions by the Unionists and to a timetable within which the two governments had (admittedly with careful politeness) "invited" the parties to respond. And then, to confound expectations once again, came the general's statement. It may not have surprised the two governments. But it surprised a lot of other people. In any case, the roller-coaster was running once again.

In a context in which the governments were swiftly falling over each other to stress the historic significance of the De Chastelain announcement, it may be timely to recall some of the reasons for Unionist caution. For a start, significant as the statement by the general was, nevertheless it had a very big hole in it. That the IRA has told the general to his own satisfaction how it would decommission is a notable step forward. What the general's text however made clear was that it had not answered the second of two questions with which Seamus Mallon, the nationalist Deputy First Minister, first challenged the IRA two years ago: When will you start decommissioning?

The how, for example, had already long been answered by the loyalist paramilitaries, without a single weapon yet being handed over. On the basis of the Chastelain text alone, it looked as though David Trimble, the UUP leader, was yet again being asked to make a leap of faith, albeit one which now had some important ratification from the independent decommissioning body.

He was being asked to so, moreover, in the context of a series of concessions unveiled last week, which, while tempered with some baubles for unionism, was still largely designed as a response to the demands of nationalists – and republicans in particular. On policing, on "demilitarisation", on judicial inquiries sought by nationalists and for a long time rejected by the British government, and on an amnesty for those wanted for terrorist offences committed before the Good Friday Agreement, the document had – for all the protestations of the governments to the contrary, a distinctly "green" tinge.

And whereas the government had set dates for implementation, there were by yesterday afternoon none forthcoming from the IRA. As Mr Trimble put it with crystalline clarity yesterday: "The IRA has taken a significant step towards decommissioning, but it hasn't actually begun decommissioning."

All of that said, the Ulster Unionists would be wise to take a very deep breath and to proceed with the canniness they have not always shown in the past but which Mr Trimble, it is safe to assume, urged on his officers last night. With good reason. The IRA movement may indeed be the breakthrough which has so long been urged on it from every quarter. Bertie Ahern, answering questions in a RTE interview, appeared to hint yesterday that some concrete sign of good faith might actually be imminent, when he suggested that there might be some "commencement of the process" within days. It just might be that what the Unionists had been demanding vociferously since that fateful Good Friday afternoon in 1998 was actually, finally, going to happen and in a big way. In which case it would be crazy to look a gift horse in the mouth.

Let's suppose, however that this isn't the case, and that the republicans have merely produced the bare minimum – words rather than actions – required to shift the blame for a breakdown, and perhaps the collapse of the devolved institutions to the Unionists. This is a wholly understandable fear for the unionists, who already think that the republicans have shown a negotiating prowess to which they cannot, to put it mildly, be certain that the governments are equal. In that case, it would surely be a grave mistake for the Unionists to fall into such a trap, at the very least without testing the republicans' good faith to destruction. As it happens, an important and very recent precedent is at hand. Sinn. Fein, in the aftermath of the publication of the governments' latest package last week, have been demanding further clarification, not least on aspects of the unpublished "implementation" plan. It may be that that the Ulster Unionists should seek some clarification of their own. The UUP's assembly members, MPs and peers – including the influential Lord Kilclooney, former deputy leader of the UUP's parliamentary party – meet in Belfast this morning. It is not too late for them to ask some questions rather than merely throw the package out, as the more moderate elements will surely realise.

There are, of course, plenty of such questions. As for Sinn Fein some of them concern last week's document itself. What in it will be enacted by the governments in any event, and what truly depends on decommissioning? Will the SDLP, the moderate nationalist party, now sign up to the new police force by allowing its representatives to join the Police Board? And so on. But most of all they will concern decommissioning itself. What has convinced the general that the IRA are serious? How prolonged does he envisage the timetable? And will Mr Ahern's hint result in a first decommissioning gesture perhaps before the real deadline for collapse, suspension, or new elections to, the assembly, 12 August?

Even pro agreement Unionists were last night very doubtful that even in a relatively benign scenario the institutions could be put back on track by then. Not only would Mr Trimble need to persuade a majority of his assembly members today, but a larger majority still, including some dissidents, would probably be required to re-elect him as First Minister by that deadline.For their part British officials were still hoping to get to have Mr Trimble's resignation rescinded without recourse to a suspension to buy more time or, more destabilising still, fresh elections.

One hope for the agreement is that even the leading hawks may not be as monolithically in favour of rejection as some fear. While David Burnside, for example, is firmly against last week's package per se. Jeffrey Donaldson, by contrast, has made decommissioning the central objective. These are straws in the wind, of course. Again not for the first time, it looks like a make or break week for the agreement. But also not for the first time, hope has been breathed back into the process at the 11th hour.