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Monday, 26 June, 2000, 11:28 GMT 12:28 UK
As good as it gets?
Republican graffiti in Belfast
Many republicans oppose compromise over weapons
By BBC News Online's Gary Duffy

There are two conflicting emotions which go to the heart of the latest momentous development in the Northern Ireland peace process.

On the one hand, by any standards, the IRA's willingness to open up some of its arms dumps to inspection is a significant breakthrough.

Optimism has always been in short supply in Northern Ireland

This is an organisation which from its perspective has never surrendered to 'the enemy', and has fiercely resisted demands to dispose of its weapons.

It is an article of faith for many grassroots republicans that it is for the IRA alone to decide what to do with its guns and explosives.

The republican leadership will know that even by allowing two respected international statesmen to inspect its arms dumps, it will have caused unease and anger among many of its supporters.

Dramatic gesture

Given the long history of violent division among republicans it is a risky strategy. There are those thought to have betrayed 'the movement' in the past who have paid with their lives.

On the other for many unionists and protestants years of anger over IRA actions will not be wiped away even by such a dramatic gesture.

The peace process is littered with moments that seemed one step forward, ten steps back

One leading dissident unionist posed the question as the news broke that the arms dumps had been inspected - "Is this as good as it gets?"

For many unionists, it is not enough to know that IRA weapons are stored away in an arms dump in some isolated part of the countryside, apparently 'beyond use.'

Guns buried in the ground can be retrieved, and from this point of view only the verifiable destruction of guns and explosives will be good enough.

There is not much room for compromise between these two perspectives.

From the viewpoint of the IRA and Sinn Fein what has now emerged is an enormous concession, a confidence building measure for the entire peace process.

Straddling the divide

Viewed from the perspective of many unionists it is still insufficient evidence of the IRA's intentions to end the 'war' for good.

Those straddling this divide - such as the main supporters of the peace process, including the British and Irish governments - will hope that this gulf can be bridged.

Northern Ireland's power-sharing government is now back in action with unionists and nationalists working together on bread and butter issues - health, education and jobs.

The development over IRA arms dumps, while not the end of the story, will give some breathing space to the Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble.
David Trimble
David Trimble: Took risk over IRA weapons
Mr Trimble is widely regarded as having taken an enormous risk by entering a power-sharing arrangement without the prior destruction of IRA weapons. His survival is seen as crucial for the wider peace process.

Not surprisingly then, Tony Blair looked visibly relieved as he welcomed the IRA move as a substantial step on the path to peace, although he fully understands the need for caution.

The peace process is littered with moments that seemed to be one step forward, followed swiftly by ten steps back.

Northern Ireland, for example, is approaching the peak of the marching season, always a time of tension between protestants and catholics.

Moment for hope

In particular the bitterly contentious dispute over the march by the protestant Orange Order at Drumcree again threatens to lead to more violence.

Optimism has always been in short supply in Northern Ireland, and for journalists observing the conflict, caution has always been a better word than breakthrough.

But that said in among the frequent gloom and setbacks, the continuing punishment beatings by paramilitaries and the bitterness of the marching season, this seems a moment for hope.

The weapons issue has for years held back the prospects for a lasting agreement in Northern Ireland and now some substantive progress is being made.

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