Amid all the pessimism, there is still cause for hope in the peace process

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"P O'Neill" – the notional spokesman in whose name IRA statements are issued – has not always been the most reliable or helpful ally of the Northern Ireland peace process. Indeed the lengthy silences of P O'Neill have most often served as eloquent testimony to the difficulty of engaging the armed wing of republicanism in the peace process at all.

So it is unusual to have two IRA statements within a week. The first, last Thursday, confirmed that the republicans had agreed with the international arms decommissioning body, chaired by General John de Chastelain, on a method of putting their armoury "completely and verifiably" beyond use. The second, issued yesterday, withdrew the offer. The reasons for the change of heart are not hard to find, and are dealt with more or less explicitly in the IRA's text. They did not like the response by David Trimble and the Ulster Unionists to what they called an "unprecedented development"; neither, it would seem, were they happy that the power-sharing arrangements set up under the Good Friday agreement, that were supposed to be between the parties on the island of Ireland, could be suspended at a stroke of a British minister's pen. That reminder of the ultimate sovereignty of the British crown was an uncomfortable moment for Irish republicans. Their pride was hurt, and they have reacted accordingly.

To talk about the political sensitivities and amour-propre of the men and women who have been behind some of the worst atrocities of the Troubles may seem odd, even obscenely indulgent, as indeed it is. But it is also essential to understanding the dynamics of the peace process.

If the representatives of armed republicanism are going to be involved in negotiations, and indeed in government, then it might be as well for British and Irish governments, as well as the Unionists, to understand what makes them tick. The Unionists, however, have shown themselves far from adept at understanding the mindset of the republicans, while Sinn Fein has been skilful at manipulating its opponents. This goes quite a way to explaining why Sinn Fein enjoys such a formidable reputation at the negotiating table and the Unionists often seem defensive and intransigent, even when they are being truer to democracy.

The lesson that Mr Trimble and the wider Unionist party should have learned long ago is that the IRA simply will not dance to a Unionist or "Brit" tune, even if, in fact, they would like to end up, one distant day, in roughly the same destination as their historic enemies have in mind. Yes, the IRA should decommission arms, and David Trimble has been right to insist upon that. The threat of violence should have no part in democratic poltics. But, not for the first time, the Unionists missed a tactical trick in not being generous enough about the IRA's moves last week, which were still a step change in the IRA's engagement with the process and did deliver some of Mr Trimble demands.

So is this the end of the peace process? There is certainly a danger that the parties are moving too far apart and will begin to lose the habit of working togther. But, for all the pessimism that the IRA's statement will invite, there is evidence within P O'Neill's text to give some grounds for hope. The language is businesslike and prosaic rather than rhetorical or portentous. The IRA still hints that it supports the peace process as a "collective effort". We would naturally hope that the IRA could offer a historic gesture on decommissioning that would transform the situation. Realistically, however, we can only hope that they can be coaxed back, via Sinn Fein, to the negotiating table. That can be done, but it will take a lot of sensitivity.