It is possible to see signs of hope even in the bleak landscape left by the IRA's bombs. Both of the governments have endeavoured to press ahead. The lines are still out to Sinn Fein. Mr Gerry Adams still talks of peace, and the balance of forces behind him in the IRA may not be weighed irrevocably towards violence. The loyalist politicians say that any return to killing on their side will be reactive, and in the meantime they want to talk politics. Among the Northern politicians, there has been little shift in pre bomb attitudes, but doors have not been banged.

In summary, it is not a situation that dreams are made on. But, given the shock of the resumption of the IRA's campaign, which effectively threw all of the pieces up into the air after 17 months of diplomatic effort, it could be a good deal worse. The 17 months of relative peace have left a clear impression of what is at stake. On the streets of Belfast and Derry, in the small towns and villages where some of the worst atrocities have occurred, there is a desperate sense that if it is lost now, the sequel could be more hopeless and politically sterile than during the worst of the years of conflict.

That is probably a soberly realistic assessment, and the popular mood must undoubtedly communicate itself to the politicians and officials who are patiently trying to reconstruct what was shattered at Canary Wharf. The extent to which optimism is possible at this stage depends on an assumption that what has changed in the last two weeks is the will to get the political process going. This had been sapped by months of deadlock. In an immensely complex situation, positions had been taken up which did not leave room for compromise. The old suspicions have continued to exert their power.

Senator George Mitchell's intervention as a much needed catalyst could provide the necessary dynamism to get substantive political talks under way. He has already demonstrated his grasp of the issues and his knowledge of the historical forces at work in drafting his report on decommissioning a document which fell victim to political expediency in London but contains proposals which are central to any solution that gets the parties talking.

If he is recruited for the task, he has already indicated that he will look for prompt action to resolve the obstacles standing in the way. It may be tempting to see him as a deus ex machia, or alternatively to discount in advance the influence that he will be able to deploy. It might be better to consider his role as one of down to earth pragmatism at a time when the sky is filled with contrary notions and most of the participants appear to have lost sight of the ultimate goal. The processes involved, moreover, of painstakingly crafting solutions that are then brusquely swept aside by one or other party do not encourage much hope in that direction unaided.

Yesterday's announcement by the Ulster Unionist Party of its proposals for the election of representatives to a 90 member chamber, which it sees as the only way of achieving all party talks, was followed predictably by Sinn Fein's rejection of the idea as divisive and ineffective. There is clearly a lot of work to be done to reconcile two views that diverge so completely. Both reflect preconditioned fears of being outmanoeuvred on matters regarded as of basic principle.

At this stage in some of the other set piece conflicts which have moved towards resolution in recent years, the prestige and disinterestedness of the United States have injected the element necessary to overcome entrenched suspicions of this kind. Why not here?