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Tuesday, November 16, 1999 Published at 11:38 GMT

UK: Northern Ireland

Analysis: Jigsaw of peace

George Mitchell: Edging the peace process forward

By News Online's Gary Duffy

The statements being issued in Northern Ireland are part of a delicate process aimed at breaking down years of mistrust between the two communities.

In a sense it is like putting together a jigsaw, often frustrating and slow, but when the final picture is complete, the sense of satisfaction is even greater.

[ image: Trimble: 'New era', but will his party back him?]
Trimble: 'New era', but will his party back him?
The barriers to be broken down between the two sides are enormous, given the years of violence, and more than 3,500 deaths.

Sinn Fein and many in the Catholic community had grave doubts whether the largest unionist party, led by David Trimble, was fully committed to a power-sharing locally elected government in Northern Ireland.

Weapons handover

Unionists embittered by years of IRA violence, would not be convinced of the good intentions of Sinn Fein, unless and until some weapons were finally handed over or destroyed.

The former American senator George Mitchell put the first piece in place on Monday, when he gave his upbeat assessment of the review of the landmark Good Friday Agreement after 10 weeks of negotiations.

The senator, long admired for his patience in the cause of peace in Northern Ireland, expressed the belief that the current deadlock in the peace process could be broken.

In essence the problem was that unionists would not contemplate sharing power with nationalists until some IRA guns were handed over, or at least until they were convinced this could be achieved in the near future.

As the next step along the way David Trimble has gone out of his way to stress the importance of an inclusive government for all the people of Northern Ireland - in other words an administration which respects the needs of both Protestants and Catholics.

Right to united Ireland

[ image: Adams: Must reassure grassroots republican opinion.]
Adams: Must reassure grassroots republican opinion.
By recognising the nationalist right to work peacefully for a united Ireland, the unionist leader was reaching out to the Catholic community in a way many of his predecessors failed to do, looking forward to a new era of "respect and tolerance."

Many nationalists will see generosity in Mr Trimble's words, but there was also a challenge as well to the republican movement - to deal with the critical issue of IRA weapons.

That is why shortly after Mr Trimble issued his statement another followed from Sinn Fein issued in the name of the party president Gerry Adams.

Significantly this acknowledged that paramilitary disarmament was a vital element of a lasting political settlement for Northern Ireland.

There was also an emphasis on disavowing the violence of the past , violence which includes the vicious punishment beatings often meted by republican paramilitaries, and the IRA in particular.

Mr Adams did not depart however from his party's position that decommissioning would have to happen on a voluntary basis.

Inclusive government

In the same way that Mr Trimble's stress on inclusive government is meant to reassure Catholics, Sinn Fein's message to the Protestant community is designed to convince them that the party is fully committed to the democratic process.

[ image: Mitchell:
Mitchell: "Common ground"
The Sinn Fein statement was followed later in the week by one from the IRA, supporting the party's strategy, although it did not contain any dramatic statement that the 'war is over' as some had hoped.

It did, however, include a decision by the IRA to appoint an intermediary to deal with the international body appointed to oversee the handover or decommissioning of weapons.

The IRA said this would happen following the establishment of a devolved administration, and the cross-border bodies envisaged in the Good Friday Agreement.

These carefully choreographed statements allowed Senator Mitchell to say that he believed the basis for setting up a power-sharing executive was finally in place.

For his part the David Trimble now faces the daunting task of winning support from his party for the move towards this devolved administration, which would include Sinn Fein, a tough political battle by anyone's standards.

It will be critical to the success of the peace process that these statement are sufficient to convince the majority of the unionist population that the IRA is sincere about getting rid of at least some of its weapons.

It is clear already that the unprecedented contact between the Ulster Unionists and Sinn Fein during the review of the Agreement created a new understanding of the difficulties faced by both sides.

Insight into republicans

Unionists now have a better insight into how republican leaders must deal with a grassroots unhappy over any gesture over the weapons issue which might be seen as surrender.

Republicans have seen at first hand how David Trimble must deal with a divided party, with many of his MPs and his deputy leader, John Taylor opposed to his strategy.

It is because of these sensitivities that the process is so slow and tortuous, and often so difficult for outsiders to understand.

But perhaps much more than a dramatic breakthrough or the sensational headline, this careful step by step approach offers a more promising chance of success for Northern Ireland's much criticised politicians.

And for the people of that long-suffering community it may at last hold out the hope that the fragile peace which currently exists may finally take hold and offer the kind of future that everyone wants.

As the Ulster Unionist party debates its options, the peace process is entering a decisive phase.

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