The IRA will have to do more to achieve a genuine breakthrough

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The peace process in Northern Ireland usually hovers somewhere between breakthrough and breakdown, as the events of the last few days have amply demonstrated. The IRA's statement, confirming that it had agreed a scheme with the decommissioning body to put its weapons "completely and verifiably" beyond use is, certainly, progress, even if it is not the breakthrough that many, against their own better judgement, might have hoped for.

Long overdue as it is, such a move is nonetheless a step forward in the IRA's engagement with the peace process, and does give some cause for hope that further movement is on the way.

It has, of course, all been at a glacial pace, but at least we do now know that the IRA wants to put its armoury beyond use, and we also know that they have been talking to the satisfaction of the international decommissioning body about the "how" of such a process. The "when" of all this remains a tantalisingly and disappointingly unanswered question, and it may well stay that way. What is more, the unionist leader David Trimble is perfectly correct in saying that it is not, in itself, an act of decommissioning. But the mood is a little better than it was at the end of last week, and, to deploy an old cliché about Northern Ireland, the peace process is probably in the familiar state of having taken two steps forward and one step back, although not necessarily in that order. We have, in other words, avoided a complete breakdown.

Which is not to say that there are not hazards ahead. In the next few days the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, John Reid, must decide the immediate future of the power sharing institutions. The least bad option in front of him is to exploit the technical provision that enables him to suspend the assembly and the executive for one day, which buys six weeks for further talks and movement. Calling fresh elections, as has been pointed out many times, would almost certainly benefit Sinn Fein and Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionists at the expense of the SDLP and Mr Trimble's Ulster Unionist Party, and could render the arrangements permanently unworkable.

There is no guarantee that the parties will be in a position to resume their work in the assembly at the end of that six weeks, however, and the danger is always that the process could begin to unravel as the habit of working together wears off. The political repercussions of any fresh terrorist activity on the part of the Real IRA or by militant loyalists is unpredictable. Volatility is built into such periods of political uncertainty, as we have seen before in Northern Ireland. And yet it is also true that a "hot house" atmosphere and the pressure of deadlines, resented though they may be, has often led to substantial progress. That was certainly the case with the intensive and overnight negotiations that led to the breakthrough of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, and it is probably also the case that without the pressure of Mr Trimble's ultimata the IRA would not have made the same kind of efforts to keep the process alive.

Perhaps we should also hope that the participants learn some of the lessons of the last few weeks. David Trimble, frustrated as he and his party may be, should recognise that even though the IRA have not yet moved beyond words to action, their most recent words do represent the possibility of something better. Republicans should also repeat the trick of responding to Mr Trimble's demands in a way that stresses their wish to support the peace process. And the Ealing bomb and other terrorist acts should serve as a terrible reminder of the futility and stalemate that all the parties want to escape from.