The real crunch for the process will come, months and possibly years from now, if and when it is seen to lay the foundations of a lasting settlement. That will also be the crunch time for Ulster Protestants, who will face the historic choice of accepting or rejecting a deal that will be unprecedented in setting out a role for nationalists in the governance of Northern Ireland.
In the meantime, however, both Northern Ireland and its peace process are fragile and volatile entities which require constant micro-management to keep them on track and deal with recurring emergencies, such as that sparked off by the shooting of Billy Wright.
At the moment most Protestant spokesmen complain of imbalance, accusing the Government of favouring nationalism and republicanism. They demand more confidence-building measures, which is to say concessions, for the Protestant community to even the score. While such spokesmen present a united front in expressing a general unease, they are also, for the moment at least, obscuring the fact that the pro-union community is riven with confusion and divisions. There is agreement that all is not well, but no clear view on what needs to be done.
London and Dublin are firmly of the view that the peace process needs to be as inclusive as possible. They also agree that efforts need to be made to underpin both the IRA and loyalist ceasefires. Hence Gerry Adams gets to meet Tony Blair in Downing Street; hence republican prisoners in Britain are repatriated to Belfast and Dublin.
Many Protestants either approve of such developments or reluctantly accept that they are useful in maintaining the peace process and hence making a return to war less likely. But spokesmen for Unionism tend automatically to classify such moves as goals scored against their community and hence a blow to their side.
The issue of prisoners, always one of the most sensitive and potentially explosive, illustrates the divisions within Unionism. The question of early releases poses a major conundrum in that leaders, such as David Ervine, who have paramilitary associations, want to see loyalists inmates released as quickly as possible.
David Trimble's Ulster Unionist Party, however, takes a much sterner view of releases, reflecting the more general Protestant view that those who have committed a crime should serve the time. The fact also is that there is no way of releasing loyalist prisoners without at the same time also freeing IRA prisoners.
This is just one of many divisions in Unionism, within which party support is scattered over five separate political groupings. The second largest of these, the Rev Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionists, took no less than 36 per cent of the Unionist vote in an election last year. Mr Paisley has taken his party out of the talks process and remains a vociferous critic of the peace process and indeed any agreed settlement.
But he is not the only critic of Mr Trimble, for four of the 10 UUP MPs advocate pulling out of the talks, while others have adopted positions of studied and not particularly supportive ambivalence. Mr Trimble's clear need to guard his flank may help explain why his party is presently raising a clamour that others criticise as over-pitched and exaggerated.
But he also reflects a genuine deep-seated angst in the Protestant community. After decades of terrorism and disruption, it is being asked to reach an accommodation with its traditional enemies. It is being told it must accept a new culture of equality, and that it should accept the bona fides of such as Sinn Fein.
These are controversial concepts for a deeply conservative and often pessimistic community, one of whose deepest fears is that of the enemy within. One of its oldest mottos is "Not an inch," a slogan equating negotiation with weakness and warning against compromise. Although most Unionists yearn for peace, they are keenly aware that the peace process was not of their making. They are now being asked to sign up for an idea which began within northern nationalism, spread to Dublin and has now been espoused by London.
Tony Blair does not appear anti-Unionist to them but Mo Mowlam, they claim, does: hence the comparative lack of criticism of the Prime Minister, but the uninhibited condemnation of the Northern Ireland Secretary. Old- fashioned male chauvinism plays its part in this.
With so much insecurity around, it is not altogether surprising that some Unionist spokesmen should fall into the trap fashioned for them by the extreme groups and issue statements that heighten uncertainty rather than seeking to calm it. A great many Unionists, while holding reservations about the peace process, nonetheless fervently hope that it will succeed and prevent a return to war. They are, however, nervous about the price of peace, by which they mean the type of sacrifices and concessions they may be asked to make.
And just as they did not conceive or shape the process, they have not produced creative thinkers to define what their ultimate goal should be. All Unionists are clear enough that the link with Britain should be maintained and if possible strengthened. But they have been unable to sketch out either to themselves or the others involved the shape of the ideal society they should be striving for. The absence of that sense of vision results in a lack of direction, making it easier for the gunmen out there to generate destabilising crises which, they hope, will derail the peace process.Reuse content