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Saturday, 27 October, 2001, 17:25 GMT 18:25 UK
Arms breakthrough puts process back on track
BBC NI political editor Mark Devenport assesses the historic implications of decommissioning following what has become one of the most significant weeks in Northern Ireland's political process.

If we were to hold a competition for most overused adjective in the peace process, then the word "historic" would be my personal nomination.

It has so often been applied to developments which you know will hardly make a footnote when the annals of these times are eventually compiled.

But looking back on the past week, the week when the IRA's pike finally came out of the thatch, try as I might, no other word than "historic" seems to fit the bill.

Barring the destruction of a handful of Loyalist Volunteer Force guns which should have probably been preserved for display in a museum, decommissioning has been all talk and no action since the Ulster Unionist Party and the former Conservative government started promoting the idea before the IRA ceasefire of 1994.

Mark Devenport
Mark Devenport:"The show is back on the road"

Now, so many deadlines and so many crises later, something has happened.

We don't know quite what, but General John De Chastelain, a man whose word is his bond, tells us it was significant - and this from the people who told us not a bullet, not an ounce of Semtex would be forthcoming.

It was, as Gerry Adams put it, a small earthquake within Irish republicanism.

Doubters like the Democratic Unionist Party still want to see the evidence.

Vindicated

Nevertheless, they re-appointed their own two ministers, and up at the Stormont assembly buildings, the breakthrough means the show is back on the road.

Ministers can put their personal effects back on their desks and set about the task of launching Belfast's campaign to be a future cultural capital.

The Ulster Unionist leader, David Trimble, believes the events of the week have vindicated his policy of resignations designed to force the suspension of the devolved government.

However, Mr Trimble now faces a tough task getting his old job back.

He requires the support of a unionist majority in the assembly, something which he achieved once before on the basis of the backing of all his 28 assembly members and the two representatives of the Progressive Unionist Party.

'Cynical ploy'

The UUP executive has called on all their assembly members, no matter how semi- detached, to fall into line.

However as the vote for first minister looms, two UUP sceptics, Pauline Armitage and Peter Weir, have been talking about the IRA move on disarmament as "a cynical ploy" and "a one-off stunt".

Mr Trimble insists that he doesn't want other parties to re-designate themselves as unionists in order to ensure his appointment.

But if the Women's Coalition did engage in that tactical ploy, it could provide the Ulster Unionist leader with a vital cushion in case his own hardliners are unwilling to break his fall.

Even if Mr Trimble is re-elected, however, anyone who thinks they have heard the last of decommissioning is mistaken.


The IRA's gesture has not only saved the peace process but also shown internationally that we can provide a beacon of hope

Mark Devenport

Many unionists insist the story of IRA disarmament must have not just a beginning, but also a middle and an end.

Others argue it is up to the loyalists to reciprocate.

A deadline of sorts is looming in February when the current remit of General De Chastelain's commission expires.

David Trimble acknowledges that total paramilitary disarmament may well not be achieved by that date and suggests that talks should start on a contingency plan, which might allow more time for decommissioning to take place.

Irish Republicans argue that in what is a bleak world so far as conflict and terror is concerned, the IRA's gesture has not only saved the peace process but also shown internationally that we can provide a beacon of hope.

However, when you survey north Belfast or Stormont, fairytale endings are hard to imagine.

History was undoubtedly made last week but even during the more mundane days ahead there will certainly be plenty of nitty gritty business for our politicians to undertake.


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See also:

19 Oct 01 | Northern Ireland
Still time for progress says Reid
25 Jul 01 | Northern Ireland
A package of possibilities?
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