It's time for Unionists to put suspicion aside and say Yes

There has been a seismic shift in the position of the IRA. Now the other side must reciprocate

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The Stormont talks have slipped into a weekend adjournment. After the flurry of activity last week David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist leader, has taken the deal offered by Sinn Fein, to his Ulster Unionist assembly group which, we are informed by the usual media spin, is split evenly on the deal. But much has been made of the volatility of some members of that group, and Mr Trimble is trying to encourage them to change their stance. If he fails, then the talks review will fail and with it the opportunity for accountable democracy here in Northern Ireland for the first time in 30 years.

There has been much talk of the decommissioning of paramilitary arms being the great stumbling-block between unionists and nationalists. But in reality the issue symbolises the grand battle within unionism.

The Good Friday Agreement contained within it the capacity to deal with decommissioning. Among the institutions envisaged by the Agreement was an International Commission headed by General de Chastelain which would grapple with the removal of illegal weaponry.

But that formula was not acceptable to many unionists. For them the failure of the Agreement to specify how much, exactly when and where in relation to the weapons was simply not good enough.

The hearts and minds of the unionist community are deeply affected by the emotion of a bitter and bloody struggle which we euphemistically call "the troubles". But some have been far-sighted enough to understand that we have a greater need than the removal of guns, and that is the need is to divest Irish Republicans of the political ammunition which sees Northern Ireland as "a Protestant state for a Protestant people" - and all of the historical baggage which accompanies such a vision of this place.

Mr Trimble understands that. But never far from the front of his party's thought process is the memory of its previous leaders O'Neill and Faulkner. They also tried to liberalise and failed because of hype, emotion and the fuelling of sectarian bitterness. David Trimble is undoubtedly a brave man. Alas, the degree to which he must look over his shoulder is dictated by how much members of his party feel threatened by the looming spectre of the greatest ever "no deal" man - the Rev Ian Paisley. He's been around a long time. He saw off O'Neill and Faulkner. Will he see off Trimble?

David Trimble knows he must win this struggle, to deal with nationalists and republicans and reinvent the relationships which exist within the British Isles, and in doing so protect the Union. If he fails, the consequences are catastrophic for the British citizens in the island of Ireland.

Long hard negotiations have taken us to the threshold of wonderful things. Enormous changes have taken place in the political arena over recent years. The Republican movement has accepted the "principle of consent" - for the first time ever, it accepts that the people of Northern Ireland must be masters of their own destiny. The people in overwhelming numbers wish to remain within the United Kingdom - and the "Provos" grudgingly approve. Yet that seismic shift doesn't seem to have registered with those who can't countenance change.

Similarly the removal of Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish Constitution - which lay claim to the territory of Northern Ireland - is of serious significance. It was the existence of these articles which afforded a specious legitimacy to the IRA war of terror against the UK. Yet the "no" camp, which demanded the removal of Articles 2 and 3, now seem to forget the achievement of those who negotiated their going.

Likewise the political wing of the Republican movement acquiesced to the creation of "cross-border bodies", and in doing so for the first time accepted that a border existed - something, according to the IRA Constitution, tantamount to treason.

That Gerry Adams takes his seat at Stormont at all is seismic. Walking past the statue of the great hero of Ulster, Lord Carson, and sitting below the figure of Britannia is shift indeed. Offering Martin McGuinness as a minister in the Northern Ireland Executive so that he can assist in British administration here is almost incredible. The Republicans have come a long, long way. They have done so for the good of their own people. A futile war had to end and the political ramifications of this means substantial change and compromise. The old tired hackneyed leaders, epitomised by Paisley, refuse to accept that the traumatic path the Republicans have traversed since ceasefire is at all important.

Yet David Trimble knows that when such political risk is taken it must be met by a reciprocal approach. He wants to do exactly that, by affording full legitimacy to Sinn Fein. He knows that to retain all the benefits achieved at their current value, he must now complete the deal.

He might yet fail. Mr Trimble will no doubt ensure that in the next few days his party colleagues understand the full implications of running away from this chance. In the past, our forte as Unionists has been to retreat, morality at our vanguard, only to return to a situation less conducive to our needs.

Today change is our friend, not our enemy. That, I believe, is the view of David Trimble. I know it is the view of Government. The existing bitterness in Northern Ireland must be addressed if we are to take our place in the new millennium. That change will have to be managed. In a divided society, it must be managed by both sides. Emotionally difficult as that may be, there is no other rational way.

If we retreat from agreement again, as usual the Government will pick up the pieces. Those who wish to wallow in the sectarian past - or are too frightened not to - should remember that governments do not have friends or pet projects. They have only interests - even Tory governments which the "no" camp naively think are more sympathetic. Well, perhaps in opposition they are.

The new world order, especially among politicians of the age of Blair, Ahern and Clinton, is to heal relationships. The healing has begun between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. Their European interests will dictate that they continue. Almost all of the past bitterness between them has been focused upon Northern Ireland. It is rational to the governments - and enough to send the Unionist tradition apoplectic - that much of the future healing process between two sovereign nations will also be through the territory which has in the past generated so much difficulty.

Clever Unionists know that now is the time to move, and in doing so have a part in the game. Fools will, if they have their way, wake up to a situation where they've lost the game simply because they wouldn't play. Of course, they have a fallback position - to shout betrayal, in the old familiar bellicose-style. That's the bit they're really good at. In the next few days we will know which direction the path is for the people of Northern Ireland. Let's hope Mr Trimble succeeds.

David Ervine is a former loyalist paramilitary who is now the senior negotiator for the Progressive Unionist Party.

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