The decision by the British government to insist on a measure of disarmament or decommissioning by the IRA and loyalist paramilitaries before the political representatives can participate in all parts talks, has been crucial to the long hiatus since the ceasefires in the early autumn of 1994. In spite of denials by London, there is little reason to believe that the issue had been seriously considered before the Downing Street Declaration was promulgated, and while what seemed like a demand for the handing over of all weapons was subsequently watered down to an imprecise "symbolic gesture", it is still a fixed pari of British policy.

In such a situation, someone has to climb down which is precisely why, in a process of negotiation, ii was bad strategy from the start. The Sinn Fein submission to the international commission which the party published yesterday, attempts to set out the reasons for its unacceptability, and while it is inevitably an ex parte argument, it has force even when its predictable conclusion of British bad faith is rejected. Negotiations, Sinn Fein says, "need to be understood to be a necessity and a duty and not the property of a party to the conflict and its allies, to withhold or award as a privilege" - In other words, talks are the vital question, and not the conditions preceding talks.

Underlying the British attitude has been the need to enter dialogue with confidence that all participants are fully committed to democratic process and will not be negotiating, in the well worn phrase, "with their guns under the table". The hard reality is that there will have to be a leap of faith regardless of what preconditions are set and met. Or does Mr Major believe that, if every IRA weapon and stick of semtex were publicly stacked and burnt, there would not be some unionist or Tory backbencher to remind us that the illegal arsenals could be refilled in a matter of months? And, of course, exactly the same reservations underlie republican thinking.

It is notable that the initial unionist reaction to the Sinn Fein document, by Mr Ken Maginnis MP, was encouraging: it was "quite a significant move in the right direction - if they see it through". Much of Ulster Unionist comment on the impasse in recent months has tended to be less stringent than the official British view, recognising that if confidence building is the issue, there are other ways such as an end to "punishment beatings" and expulsions, and a durable ceasefire in which it can be achieved, than by decommissioning alone.

That is the pragmatic approach, which also acknowledges that getting to negotiations is merely a means to an end, and that the real test of good faith and readiness to compromise will take place at that stage. Sinn Vein, in its proposals to the international body, has linked decommissioning to the development of "public and political confidence", and has suggested that an acceptable method would be destruction by those holding arms with verification by an independent third party. It has left t's to be crossed and i's to be dotted ("this would, of course, have to be agreed by those in possession of weapons", a phrase littered with pitfalls). But the logjam has begun to move.