Leading Article: Irish deal can be done

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The Independent Online
HOW MANY last chances can Northern Ireland have? Even for a place that specialises in the politics of brinkmanship, this weekend must surely represent the final moment for considered decision before the three febrile days of negotiation that will bring the province to the deadline on Wednesday, at which the peace process could fall apart after a year of stuttering progress. The auguries have not been good. The Unionists refuse to form an executive for the Northern Ireland Assembly that contains Sinn Fein until the IRA starts to decommission its arms. The republicans say the Good Friday Agreement did not make decommissioning a precondition, and see the demand as proof that the Unionists are not serious about letting them into government.

On Friday the British and Irish Prime Ministers flew to Belfast and, at the end of preliminary discussions, announced that all the participants had committed themselves to three things: an inclusive executive exercising devolved powers; decommissioning of all paramilitary arms by May 2000; and that the independent commission headed by General John de Chastelain would determine the arms-removal force. Reaching agreement on the sequence of events within those boundaries is, of course, the problem. And yet there are grounds for optimism.

Tony Blair has done well so far. He and his Irish counterpart, Bertie Ahern, have ensured that their tactics have been rigidly parallel. Every word has been co-ordinated to avoid giving hostages to fortune. They have adhered strictly to their side of the Good Friday bargain even where, as with the release of the Brighton bomber, Patrick Magee, Blair was obliged for reasons of domestic politics to voice his grim distaste. And they have been firm on the deadline, which coincides neatly with the devolution of power to Scotland and Wales and pre-empts the malign influence of a long hot summer of marches. The formula they have come up with ought to offer the basis for agreement. It offers the Unionists the huge carrot of total IRA disarmament within 10 months, and a guarantee that the executive will fall if the republicans renege. It also allows Sinn Fein to maintain the fiction that they are not conterminous with the IRA while they discover whether the Unionists are serious about power-sharing. But real progress will not be made until both parties acknowledge that a greater priority than decommissioning arms in Northern Ireland is the decommissioning of symbols.

The Unionists have impaled themselves on a "no guns, no government" stance because they have not yet shaken off the "No Surrender" mindset, which is a barrier to consensual cross- community government. The republicans do not yet have the confidence to abandon the notion that to hand over even a token amount of weaponry would be tantamount to an admission that the IRA lost the war and open them up to be outflanked by the "Real" IRA, which British and Irish security forces believe has now abandoned the ceasefire. Each side needs to recognise the insecurity of the other and create more time and space for trust to grow organically within the community. When that happens, the issue of when and how to dispose of the Semtex, AK-47s, machine pistols and the rest will shrink to manageable proportions.

Unionists have warned that "euphemistic language" will not resolve the deadlock. But there is much to explore within what "decommissioning" means. There are intermediate steps - pledging an end to paramilitary imports, making inventories of arms, lodging them with third parties, and so on. To explore such middle routes is not about creating a fudge so much as building trust. In Northern Ireland the peace is not perfect but the violence is at its lowest level since 1969, the economy is prospering and there is a feeling almost of normality about everyday life. To buy time for another year of this would be to no one's disadvantage. Everybody knows the price of failure. Perhaps in May 2000 the fault-lines will remain unchanged. But time has a way of ameliorating situations. If not, at least the politicians of the province will have bought another last chance. How many last chances can Northern Ireland have? As many as it takes.

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