Hint of flexibility on arms impasse is in the air


It is hard to know whether there was more wisdom or arrogance in the words of the MP who told the House of Commons in 1919: "I never met anyone in Ireland who understood the Irish Question except one Englishman who had only been there a week."

The more time you spend studying "the Irish Question", sometimes known as "Ireland's English Question", the murkier it becomes. The same is true of decommissioning. If you spoke only to one side, then both the problem and its resolution would be blindingly clear.

Talk to unionists, for example. Their message is, in effect: "All the IRA has to do is hand over a half-pound of Semtex and perhaps a few rusty revolvers to Gen de Chastelain and we will agree to form a government with Sinn Fein within minutes."

It all sounds very convincing and logical until you talk to the republican side. They say, in essence: "The unionists want decommissioning as a token of surrender, an admission that what we have been doing is criminal.

Decommissioning for cabinet seats is not in the agreement: we are entitled to be in government on the basis of our mandate and are not going to barter weapons for ministries."

Pity, then, the middle-ground politicians and officials from both governments and, increasingly of late, the White House, who are caught between the Unionist rock and the Sinn Fein hard place, trying to devise a formula that will allow both sides to agree without losing face.

Pity, too, Gen de Chastelain, who has been put in charge of destroying guns but up to now - apart from an LVF consignment - has been given no guns to destroy.

The signs are that the general will not be spending too much time overseeing the destruction of weapons for some time to come, unless the LVF can come up with another tranche. The UVF has taken a particularly hard line and the IRA's position has, if anything, become harder in recent weeks.

Even the possibility of a statement from the IRA indicating an acceptance in principle that there should be decommissioning at some future stage has faded. Republican sources were adamant this week: in the highly unlikely event that the IRA issues another statement, it will not be to indicate a softening of its stance.

The prospect of a Sinn Fein statement was also played down. The only statement we could expect was from Gen de Chastelain. Republicans would like him to say his piece soon, well in advance of the March 10th deadline for devolution.

Republicans say games are being played in the peace process - Bertie Ahern's divagations on decommissioning are a good example - and they are sitting on their hands and watching the play with a mixture of bemusement, cynicism and mild apprehension.

They are sticking by their understanding of the agreement, and by their view that Mr David Trimble has painted himself into a corner and that it's up to the UUP leader to get himself out of it.

The real view in Dublin, as distinct from what Mr Ahern feels obliged to tell different audiences, is that there will be no IRA decommissioning in the short term and that the republicans may never, in fact, hand over their guns.

However, encouragement has been drawn in Dublin and London from the fact that the UUP and Sinn Fein had their first-ever meeting at delegation level last week. Further and possibly more significant and productive contacts were expected as a result.

The interview with the UUP security spokesman in the Times yesterday, headlined "Maginnis offers wriggle room", was also seen as helpful. Party sources were playing down its significance but, while Ken Maginnis did not depart from the substance of the UUP position, his tone and language were more measured than the usual UUP utterances on weapons.

There was a hint, too, that the republicans would be allowed some flexibility on the timing of decommissioning.

Oddly enough, both the UUP and Sinn Fein will tell you they have done all they can and it is now up to the other side to move. The unionists point out that they have co-operated in the redrawing of government structures and the designation of cross-Border bodies: the structures were all in place and it was just a question of the republicans handing in a few guns.

For their part, the republicans point out that there is a ceasefire in place, an agreement has been signed and the only remaining issue is whether the unionists will keep the word they gave on Good Friday.

It's brinkmanship all over again. Both sides are adopting negotiating positions. It looks at this stage as if the unionists are going to have to row back a bit on the hardline stance they took before last week's vote in the Assembly, and that appears to be what they are doing, by way of various moderating statements, sound bites and interviews.

The republicans still appear to be consumed with mistrust of Mr Trimble's intentions. Until this is overcome there will clearly be little "give" from that side.

This week the Northern Secretary will meet the parties to discuss the wording of the standing order she is due to present to the speaker of the Assembly, so that the process of allocating ministerial posts can begin. Unionist predictions that Mr Blair would come out with a very hardline statement on decommissioning, making Dr Mowlam look wishy-washy, have not been proved right so far.

In a speech at Methodist College, Belfast, yesterday Dr Mowlam focused attention once again on the March 10th deadline for the transfer of powers. "That remains our clear and firm target," she said.

Both London and Dublin would prefer if the current impasse could be broken by negotiations between the parties themselves, without the necessity for Mr Blair and Mr Ahern to become publicly involved. The two leaders are in constant contact and will doubtless be ready to board the helicopters one more time if required.

If that doesn't work, the White House will attempt to knock heads together on St Patrick's Day. There is a hint of optimism in the air: the Spirit of Good Friday is not quite dead yet.