Ball now in Trimble's court as Adams reiterates Sinn Fein's commitment to democratic process

 

Such a long war, such a short statement. But even the ice from a very long winter can be broken with a single blow. The meeting of David Trimble and Seamus Mallon with leaders of the Assembly parties at Stormont next Monday was going to take place anyway, Ulster Unionist sources said, but it had now been given "added significance" by the Adams statement. That must be the understatement of the year.

A further meeting between Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness, heading a high-powered delegation of senior party figures, and the chairman of the decommissioning body, Gen John de Chastelain, was expected today. It was widely expected that Mr McGuinness would be named as Sinn Fein's liaison officer with the decommissioning body although a party spokeswoman refused to comment on this. Nobody will be very surprised to hear that the Americans have been central to this latest development. At last, some good news for the hard-pressed Bill Clinton. The key phrase in the Adams text was his statement that violence must now be "a thing of the past, over, done with and gone". The words "finished, done with, gone" were used by Mr Blair in a similar context in a speech at the Balmoral Conference Centre in Belfast during the referendum campaign last May.

A momentum has begun to build around the Adams statement already. Although nobody was bold enough to predict an Adams-Trimble handshake during the US President's visit, there was some speculation they might appear in the same photograph along with Mr Clinton and others.

That would take a bit of fancy footwork but choreography has been the name of the game this week. The British and Irish governments were heavily involved and it is understood the British wanted the statement issued prior to the Clinton visit. One can hardly blame them for being somewhat proprietorial about the peace process.

The meeting of Mr Trimble and Mr Mallon with two representatives from each of the Assembly parties was required under the terms of the agreement. The First Minister and Deputy First Minister were obliged to report to the parties on the progress made over such issues as the formation of the shadow executive. UUP sources stressed the party would still be putting forward its view "very forcefully" that decommissioning was still required if real progress was to be made.

Here in Belfast, the only sound on the streets is that of the evening traffic. No bells ring: is this really the end of the conflict?

Mr Adams's words are strong but they will be parsed and analysed for days to come to see whether they are definitive. There is an unspoken understanding that, like Mr Trimble, he is in a "difficult position" and cannot be as forthright as many would like.

Once again he condemns the Omagh bombing; reiterates Sinn Fein's commitment to "exclusively peaceful and democratic means"; and promises to work politically to make the Omagh blast "the last violent incident in our country".

Pointing out that others also have a responsibility to remove the causes of conflict, he makes his key point: "Sinn Fein believe the violence we have seen must be for all of us now a thing of the past, over, done with and gone."

The choreography nearly came unstuck at the weekend, according to republican sources, with a report that Mr McGuinness had agreed to act as a facilitator between the IRA Army Council and the decommissioning body. This was seen in republican circles as a misguided attempt by a "senior government source" to force the pace on Sinn Fein.

The IRA statement to An Phoblacht was distinctly more hardline in tone than Mr Adams's text yesterday. But observers said that reflected the different nature of the two organisations. For the IRA to make a declaration along the lines of the Adams statement would require a set of procedures including another convention. However, it can be assumed Mr Adams would not have made his statement without at least the tacit approval of the IRA leadership.

It should also be noted that the IRA spokesman refused to be drawn into what he described as "word games" on whether or not the war was over. The implication some observers took from this was that such matters were for Sinn Fein, in the first instance at least.

Republicans say the ball is now in David Trimble's court. The announcement that he would meet Mr Adams, admittedly as part of an "umbrella" group, was at least an indication of good faith. Once again, though, he must face down his internal critics. We can be sure that President Clinton will do nothing to discourage him.