The peace process is in grave danger unless the IRA takes a real risk

Click to follow

It did not require a genius to notice that the IRA has failed to fulfil its side of the peace process bargain, with the suggestion that it would put its weapons beyond use. The international commission appointed to oversee the decommissioning of weapons in Northern Ireland was thus merely stating the obvious, when it declared itself "unable to ascertain" how the IRA will fulfil its not-quite commitment. General John de Chastelain's commission seems eager to be emollient, noting that the opening of some IRA arms dumps for inspection encouraged the commission to believe that the IRA's conditional commitment to put its arms "completely and verifiably beyond use" was "made in good faith". Still, the frustration was clear.

The IRA's failure has been compounded by Sinn Fein, which likes to blame everybody else for the difficulties in the peace process, but never shoulders any responsibility itself. The resignation of David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionists – officially confirmed in the assembly yesterday – was a reminder of how deep is the crisis that has now embroiled the Northern Ireland executive.

Martin McGuinness, now Minister of Education, insisted: "Everybody knows there is no threat to the peace process from Sinn Fein nor, I believe, the IRA." In reality, the peace process is in severe danger. The loss of Mr Trimble – the embodiment of the peace process itself, on the Protestant side – is in nobody's favour, including the nationalists themselves. Sinn Fein and the IRA finally need to understand that.

Sinn Fein and their IRA friends may believe they can make capital out of the Unionists' disarray. In the short term, perhaps. In the long term, however, nationalists would lose badly from the death of the peace process. As the interviews in the BBC series Endgame in Ireland have made dramatically clear, nationalists and unionists alike found themselves in a political cul-de-sac in recent years. The Good Friday peace agreement offered a way out. For either side to believe that the process can survive without compromise is self-delusion on a grand scale.

The peace process, despite the dramas of recent days, is not dead yet. Mr Trimble's resignation is more of an Ulster resignation than a real one. He has left himself a number of options for rising from the political dead in due course – not least if the IRA finally makes a concession in the next six weeks. Then comes the summer break (Mr Trimble has already made his holiday plans); then, in the autumn, things can start all over again.

The danger is that Sinn Fein may come to think that it will never have to offer any form of compromise, because the crisis never comes to a head. But each crisis leaves Mr Trimble a little weaker than he was before. The Irish prime minister, Bertie Ahern, talked yesterday of the "inevitability of getting to the end of this [peace process]". His sangfroid is admirable. But peace is not as inevitable as Mr Ahern might like to think.

Seamus Mallon, deputy leader of the moderate Catholic SDLP, suggests that Sinn Fein should now be excluded from the executive. That is unlikely. In the meantime, Mr Trimble's stumblings appear like those of an accident-prone cartoon character, going splat! before continuing cheerily on his way almost as if nothing has happened.

Real life is not so gentle. At some point, everything may explode once more – and people will again start to die. If Sinn Fein's conversion to the cause of peace is genuine, it must take some risks to keep the peace alive. A small dose of political humility would go a very long way.