It is true that speculation has replaced facts in the various assessments of the progress that the George Mitchell review is making in Belfast, thanks to the former senator’s imposition of a media blackout on his attempt to rescue the Good Friday peace agreement.
Mitchell imposed this blackout in the belief that spinning is inimical to serious negotiations. The example he had before him was the debacle of the previous attempt to unravel the "no guns, no government" dispute last July.
It was almost certainly a wise decision. But in spite of the clampdown, some facts have emerged — and they are such as to give us hope that a deal is in the making.
At least they allow us to infer as much.
Fact: The IRA has given Mitchell a statement outlining its approach to the decommissioning problem and Mitchell has offered this as part of an overall package deal to resolve the current impasse.
Inference: The former senator, an experienced negotiator, would not have proffered this statement after such painstaking assessments of all the parties’ positions unless he was confidant that it contained the germs of a solution.
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Fact: Mitchell spent last week briefing the heads of government in London, Dublin and Washington, and then returned to Belfast.
Inference: There is a very real possibility of a deal, otherwise the senator would have wound up the review by now, having informed the governments he was about to do so.
Fact: Mitchell was still talking to the participants as the Echo went to press.
Inference: There was something worth talking about, another indication that the gap between Sinn Fein and the Ulster Unionist Party is narrow. If it were still unbridgeable at this stage, then the review would have been wound up.
Fact: Sinn Fein and the UUP have actually been engaged in intense negotiations — this in itself is a new and substantial development.
Inference: The parties see each other not as hideous enemies but as potential partners with mutual problems to solve.
Caution is needed, of course. The clampdown on information has meant that no matter how well based the speculation, or how reasonable it appears to be, there remains a lack of the necessary facts to transform it into an actual rather than a putative scenario. However, from past experience, it is possible to deduce the ingredients that any successful outcome of the review would have to contain. After all, the nature of the problem dictates the nature of the solution.
It will contain two immutable but essential items:
€ republican commitment to arms decommissioning that Unionist Party leader David Trimble can accept and sell to his party.
€ Unionists guarantee that the institutions of the Good Friday peace agreement would be set up, including the power-sharing executive and the cross-border bodies.
If Trimble is to achieve this, then republicans, his future partners in government, would have to give him the necessary cover on decommissioning. If they can do that and hold their own base together, then a deal will be done, and sooner rather than later.
What this boils down to is a matter of sequencing. This is where the role of the International Decommissioning Commission headed by Canadian Gen. John De Chastelain will prove as crucial for republicans as that of Mitchell himself.
Both De Chastelain and Mitchell came to the problem with no political baggage, at least in relation to the Northern Ireland problem, other than wanting to see it resolved for the benefit of all the people of Ireland. Republicans have been able to engage with them as outside mediators, and men of good will. They will be the guarantors that if republicans take the risk and begin the decommissioning process, then they will not be disappointed or let down by Unionist hesitation or prevarication.
Of course, in the end, however useful as enablers outsiders might be, no agreement can be reached between the antagonists themselves unless a degree of understanding and trust has grown up between them. The quality of the negotiations between Sinn Fein and the UUP is an encouraging indication that this stage has been reached. They have come to know the nature of the other’s position, of the other’s problems. What is known cannot be unknown. Old illusions and misconceptions, however convenient for propaganda purposes in the past, become increasingly untenable as a foundation for future progress. This gives us further hope to believe that the progress that has so long eluded the process will now be made and the promise of the Good Friday agreement realized at last.