The majority who long for lasting peace in Ulster must find their voice

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The Independent Online

There was a seismic shift after all, then. The Prime Minister was regarded pityingly by many Unionists for getting excited over assurances he had allegedly received from the IRA last year. He had fallen for the same old republican smooth talk, they said. The IRA would never give up its arms. They were reinforced in this conviction by the republican movement itself. On the face of it, it said precisely the same thing. The IRA repeatedly insisted it would never give up its arms. But it meant something rather different. It meant it could never use any form of words which implied surrender. And now it has found a formula which could end its war without using any words suggestive of suing for peace. Its statement at the weekend did not mention disarmament, giving up, handing over or anything else nearby in the thesaurus.

There was a seismic shift after all, then. The Prime Minister was regarded pityingly by many Unionists for getting excited over assurances he had allegedly received from the IRA last year. He had fallen for the same old republican smooth talk, they said. The IRA would never give up its arms. They were reinforced in this conviction by the republican movement itself. On the face of it, it said precisely the same thing. The IRA repeatedly insisted it would never give up its arms. But it meant something rather different. It meant it could never use any form of words which implied surrender. And now it has found a formula which could end its war without using any words suggestive of suing for peace. Its statement at the weekend did not mention disarmament, giving up, handing over or anything else nearby in the thesaurus.

Instead, it used the phrase which has been around for a long time: "putting arms beyond use". But now we have a structure which gives it meaning, which names real people to verify it - Martti Ahtisaari, the man who helped broker peace in Kosovo, and Cyril Ramaphosa, who helped bring justice to South Africa - and uses real words, like "arms dumps".

This is precisely the kind of initiative from the republicans which was needed to move the peace process forward. David Trimble had already taken risks with his leadership of the Ulster Unionist Party in order to see the Northern Ireland Assembly up and running for 10 weeks over the turn of the year. He had shown unusual bravery, going over the heads of his MPs and Assembly members to persuade a reluctant party council to share power, however briefly, with Sinn Fein, the political wing of an armed organisation.

He could go no further with a Unionist population which was evenly divided for and against the Good Friday Agreement in the first place, and which remains opposed by a clear majority to working with Sinn Fein while its military wing remains armed.

The IRA's statement goes a long way to meeting that concern, and the Unionist people of Northern Ireland should be implored to accept it as a basis for discussion. The details clearly need much work, as we try to imagine Mr Ahtisaari and Mr Ramaphosa being led down the cellar steps and shown boxes of Semtex, detonators in neatly-labelled plastic drawers and a rack of sniper rifles. But at least the IRA is talking in such terms.

The political problem remains that, for the ordinary Unionist people of Northern Ireland, there is not enough of an incentive to restore the Assembly. Paradoxically, it is the republicans who are keenest on getting their behinds back on the seats in a body explicitly representing a part of the United Kingdom.

Tony Blair will, therefore, probably have to make some concession to Unionist sensitivities over the re-badging of the Royal Ulster Constabulary.

In the longer view, however, it is clearly in the interests of all the people of Northern Ireland that they seize this chance. It has been unwise of Mr Blair to go on about the Good Friday Agreement being "the only show in town". But the basic architecture of the Agreement is sound, and the Unionists must not balk at the fact that, like all big civil engineering projects, its completion has been delayed.

The Unionists in particular should be reminded that restoring the Assembly, and reforming the RUC, are all part of the deal, the deal that guarantees in the long term that they need not fear being blown up when they go shopping, or that someone they know might be shot for going to the wrong church. The majority in Northern Ireland that wants to secure normality must make itself heard.

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