The peace process still fights against the sordid realities

David McKittrick on what will happen now that Mr Trimble has won the weapons argument
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Guns have played a large part in the life of Martin Ferris, the bearded Kerry republican who could be seen hovering behind Gerry Adams as they watched Tony Blair speak on the steps of Hillsborough Castle last week.

Martin Ferris had seven tons of guns for the IRA on board a converted trawler, the Marita Ann, when he was arrested off the Irish coast as he tried to bring them across the Atlantic from the United States in 1984. As a result he spent 10 years in Portlaoise jail in the Irish Republic.

Last week, in the role of a Sinn Fein negotiator, he listened as Mr Blair spelt out that some arms had to be "put beyond use" as part of the procedure for bringing Sinn Fein into Northern Ireland's new government.

It is too early to say whether Martin Ferris and the other republican leaders will oblige Mr Blair and the other parties by agreeing to that stipulation. Doing so would be a huge wrench for a movement that has historically and psychologically put so much store in the gun.

But the fact that they spent so much time in Hillsborough Castle's baronial splendour, by all accounts discussing the issue with great deliberation and seriousness, was a sign that they have come a long way. No longer do republicans think they can settle the Irish question by amassing enough guns to blast the British off the island.

British policy too has come a long way. When John Major and Sir Patrick Mayhew began demanding decommissioning back in 1995, they did so with every appearance of deploying it as a tactical blocking mechanism, the deliberate setting of a test which they reckoned the republicans could not pass.

It seemed not a genuine request but the flinging down of a gauntlet. David Trimble's decommissioning demand also had, to republican ears, the smack of a confrontational challenge, of a command that a penitential offering be made on bended knee by miscreants.

What emerged last week from the Hillsborough pressure cooker was something very different. The stipulation was made that arms be put "beyond use", but it was laid down with no sense of aggressive ultimatum. It was made very clear that decommissioning is essential, but the concept was garlanded with euphemisms designed to take every account of republican sensitivities.

Furthermore it is clear that the document produced, though it fell short of a formal agreement, has the wholehearted support of just about everyone involved in the peace process, including, crucially, the other important nationalist elements, which is to say Dublin and the SDLP. Everyone has thought deeply about the issue, and everyone has agreed that the republicans have to do it.

The fact that this is so is a major achievement for Mr Trimble, who has in effect won the decommissioning argument. When he revived it in the wake of last year's Good Friday Agreement, few thought he would prevail, since the accord itself had taken refuge in ambiguity.

A familiar pattern in recent years has seen nationalist and republican arguments eventually carrying the day, leaving unionists trailing and having to be dragged, as one blunt commentator put it, kicking and screaming into the peace process.

Last week was different. Almost everyone concluded that Mr Trimble was wrong in insisting that the agreement required decommissioning to happen now - but almost everyone also concluded that his survival is necessary for the survival of the process, that he had to be rescued, and that decommissioning was the only way to do it.

He still has many problems. The general unionist community is split and confused. This is not a new state of affairs, but it is unsettling for those who are attempting to find a stable platform on which to construct such a far-reaching new settlement.

The Rev Ian Paisley is, as ever, crying sell-out and betrayal. The European elections, which are not far away, will give him ample opportunity to play on unionist uncertainties. He will be marketing the old policies of tribalism and conflict; Mr Trimble will have to sell the revolutionary idea of a coalition with Sinn Fein.

On top of all that Mr Trimble has to cope with many doubting backwoodsmen, together with a couple of quite exceptionally treacherous colleagues. Outside observers might believe that last week was a significant success for him, but the suspicions that always permeate the unionist political imagination mean that he received few public congratulations for his work.

In opting to support his position that decommissioning is a political necessity, the British and Irish governments have jointly concluded that, for all their protestations to the contrary, the republicans can in fact deliver.

Mo Mowlam has said that no one worked harder during the week than Gerry Adams and his Sinn Fein team. It is not clear, however, whether the two governments are proceeding on the basis of some private assurances that decommissioning is a possibility, or whether it is simply their judgement that republicans face the stark choice of either complying or of watching the whole peace process go down the drain, and will choose the former.

Republicans and nationalists prize the peace process highly, well over 90 per cent of them having turned out north and south to vote for it in last year's referendums. The nationalist population in general is pragmatic and holds no principled objection to decommissioning; but the leadership of the IRA itself is a different story, and so are many of the people in its ranks. IRA regulations are very specific about its guns: misappropriating weapons is one of the most serious offences in its rulebook, and may be punished by death. The organisation has killed people, both members and non-members, for misusing its guns.

People such as Martin Ferris have spent long years behind bars for possessing weaponry, so the idea of placing guns "beyond use" goes against generations of republican doctrine and custom. The fear is that some, rather than agree to decommissioning, will cause a split in the IRA and form new terrorist groups.

There is also still a great deal of loyalist violence around, claiming lives such as that of the human-rights lawyer Rosemary Nelson. Loyalist petrol-bombings of Catholic homes are frequent occurrences and have a deadly intent. In some instances, those who attack a home not only pour petrol through the letter-box but also try to squirt it over the bottom of the stairs, in the hope that the family targeted will not be able to escape.

The high rhetoric of the peace process is one thing; the sordid sectarian reality of the backstreets is another, and many republicans will be genuinely torn about where to go from here. It is yet another of those moments of truth that the peace process from time to time produces, one of those choices which can mean the difference between peace and war.