Now is the time to bite the bullet


Belfast . . . Thursday . . . March 11th, 1999.

The city awakened yesterday to the near-forgotten, still dread-familiar sound of bombs exploding. Not since Bloody Friday had the explosive power of terror registered its effect with such intensity.

As a huge pall of smoke spread over north Belfast, - stretching its tentacles toward the lough, and the peaceful environs of Down beyond - men, women and children huddled on street corners, fearing the worst. Veterans of "the bad old days" confided their contented belief that the IRA was back at work. The "Big Man" had been right all along. The peace process was a fraud - the IRA as determined as ever that nothing less than a united Ireland would do.

But as the helicopters hovered over the Cave Hill, the local airwaves crackled with the sensational news that these explosions confirmed that the war, in fact, was finally over.

The IRA's army council had issued a lengthy statement confirming a "voluntary" decommissioning of Semtex and other "offensive" weapons - verified by Gen de Chastelain - as proof of its commitment to the successful implementation of the Belfast Agreement.

The statement contained no commitment to further decommissioning acts, or to an "indicative timetable" of the kind talked about in recent weeks. And it carried a bitter critique of Mr Trimble and the Ulster Unionist "exploitation" of the decommissioning issue as "an instrument of obstruction and delay". Bitterly critical, too, of Mr Ahern and Mr Blair for "their failure to face-down the unionist rejectionists", the IRA statement said it had acted to "call Mr Trimble's bluff and to deny him and his party any further excuse for refusing to implement the will of the people of the 32 counties".

Mr Trimble was more than happy to have his bluff called. Clearly having had prior notice, he was already closeted at Stormont with Seamus Mallon and Mo Mowlam, plotting a breathtaking sequence of political events which ended last night - just in time for the six o'clock news - with the first formal meeting of Northern Ireland's new government.

Mr Jeffrey Donaldson had tried to halt Mr Trimble at a high-noon emergency meeting of the UUP executive. A voluntary gesture didn't amount to a clearly defined programme of decommissioning.

Without that, he argued, the IRA would retain its threat and its leverage, particularly over the Patten Commission on the RUC.

But the First Minister was clear that the republicans had broken "the psychological barrier" and the rest would follow logically and inevitably from Sinn Fein's participation in government. And after further telephone calls to Mr Blair and Mr Ahern, he told his party - as he had done on Good Friday - "I'm going for it. Who's coming with me?"

There was astonishment as word spread of those joining Mr Trimble. Against all expectations, Gerry Adams joined Mitchel McLaughlin at the cabinet table - confirming the necessity for the party leader to take his place on the North-South Ministerial Council and the British- Irish Council.

Offstage, meanwhile, a furious row developed among anti-agreement unionists, as Peter Robinson and Nigel Dodds confirmed they had accepted ministerial posts while insisting they would not sit in the Executive but rather be "ministers in opposition."

This concept proved incomprehensible to Mr Robert McCartney, who promptly announced his intention to resign from the Assembly and fight the European election in June as "the one true rejectionist".

Highly fanciful? All the evidence would appear to say so.

First, Sinn Fein maintains there is simply no chance of the IRA meeting Mr Trimble's "unilateral demand" for decommissioning as the price of the party's entry into government.

Second, on his present declared position, a "voluntary" gesture by the IRA would not apparently be enough for Mr Trimble.

Third, even Dr Mowlam, who originally set March 10th as the target date for the devolution of powers to Belfast, is resigned to the idea that the parties will take this "to the wire" and beyond - making the first anniversary of the Good Friday agreement, April 2nd, the effective new "deadline".

The theory is now widely adhered to that the Northern Ireland parties need to move to the very edge of the abyss before realising the wisdom of a hasty retreat in order to make the necessary, if painful, compromises.

As it proved before, so the optimists hope it will prove again. But there are objective grounds for suggesting that, if Wednesday's deadline falls, the decommissioning issue is unlikely to prove any easier to resolve a further three weeks down the line. Indeed, it may prove still more difficult - with all the implications that carries for the survival of the Belfast Agreement, and the future of politics in the North.

Assuming Wednesday comes and goes without a solution, and therefore without a decision to bring the executive and other institutions into being, the republicans will immediately claim David Trimble is in breach of the Good Friday text. We know this because they have loudly and consistently told us so. As they have told us that, in that event, it will be for Mr Blair and Mr Ahern to force Mr Trimble's hand.

That view would doubtless be hammered home to the British Prime Minister and the Taoiseach in a series of crisis meetings. But they are unlikely to respond - if only because they cannot. Mr Ahern, in particular, appears to accept that the UUP leader cannot move until he is satisfied somehow over decommissioning. And amid clear signs of Labour nervousness about its Scottish and Welsh devolution project, it is unlikely Mr Blair would consider this a propitious moment for a full-scale confrontation with the North's unionists.

We are speculating here, of course, that Mr Ahern and Mr Blair would put the squeeze on Mr Trimble given a convincing "voluntary" gesture by the IRA. Some well-informed sources say they would expect a similar reaction should the IRA accept the principle of decommissioning and a requirement to have done it by May 2000 - with no "product" up-front.

But without either - and without a complete U-turn by Mr Trimble - we can take it as a matter of practical politics that Dr Mowlam will not be pressing the button for the creation of an SDLP/Sinn Fein executive.

If the Secretary of State thought to call Mr Trimble's bluff, he has made it clear he would resign as First Minister. In that event the DUP would have no choice but to follow suit and refuse to nominate ministers.

These appear to be core realities - and it is hard to see how any of them will have changed by the time we get to Good Friday. Indeed, it is hard to see how the IRA would find it easier to move three weeks down the line - Sinn Fein having proclaimed Mr Trimble in breach of the agreement - only to find it is it, and not he, who is to be faced down.

Maybe there are good reasons for further delay. But from this vantage point, no time looks more promising than the present.