The uncertainty came about thanks to Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimbles rejection of Sinn Fein President Gerry Adamss attempt to answer British government questions about the future and intentions of the IRA. The continued creative ambiguity of Adamss answers was not enough in the epoch when acts of completion are the measure of progress. But so far, that progress has been excruciatingly slow, and still bedeviled by uncertainty, which now hangs once again over the elections themselves.
In public, when asked about whether the election will go ahead, both the British and Irish government spokesmen will only say that the date of the election is fixed in law. They know full well that the last date for the elections - May 1 –- was also fixed in law but that the law was changed when Blair judged that Sinn Fein and the IRA required more time to sort out their approach to his demands for a definitive act of completion that would signal the end of the IRA as a violent organization
The continuing uncertainty was underlined by the fact that while the Irish government is saying that the elections scheduled for May 29 will go ahead, sources close to the British government are hedging their bets. The Irish government is convinced that an election will propel the process forward by forcing the victors into a major round of negotiations to hammer out the conditions for a return to power of the devolved institutions, suspended since last October after Unionists threatened to walk out because of alleged IRA activities. But the British are concerned that Sinn Fein and the Rev. Ian Paisleys Democratic Unionist Party will emerge as the two dominant parties and create an even more difficult impasse than the one in which the process is already snarled. They are not confidant that Trimble would survive as leader after an electoral defeat at Paisleys hands and have little appetite to deal with those anti-agreement unionists such as Jeffrey Donaldson and David Burnside who might replace him.
The Irish government, however, gives a more upbeat prognosis, as it has tended to do over the last few months. According to this, Sinn Fein as the majority nationalist party would be forced to get rid of the incubus of the IRA in order to go into government with unionists (of whatever stripe). They point to Adamss answer to Blairs questions about the IRAs campaign being terminated when he said: If the two governments and all the parties fulfill their commitments, this will provide the basis for the complete and final closure of the conflict.
The Irish government believes that this is an acknowledgement for the first time from the republican movement that the Good Friday agreement is the context for the resolution of the Irish conflict. Until now, the IRA and Sinn Fein have sold their supporters the agreement on the basis that it was, in Michael Collins words when talking about the 1921 settlement, a stepping stone to the republican goal of Irish unity rather than a solution in itself.
For the first time too, it seems that the British government - normally too worried about compromising the republican leadership by drawing attention to their reversals in policy - has pointed to the change it sees in republican thinking. Last Monday, Britains Northern Ireland secretary of state, Paul Murphy, while talking about Adamss statement, pointed out that the commitments to decommissioning and ending the conflict had been given in the context of the implementation of the Good Friday agreement, as opposed to the achievement of Irish unity.
In the Irish analysis, negotiations would not follow hard upon the election, but because of the always contentious summer marching season would probably have to be postponed until September. This would coincide with the promised review of the whole agreement.
However, the pessimists in London and Belfast parse Adamss language and find still too many ambiguities. They point out that in his remarks upon the IRAs intentions to bring the conflict to an end Adams makes this dependent on whether the IRA decides that the governments and parties have indeed fulfilled their commitments. Likewise, Adamss statement on the IRAs commitment to full and final decommissioning is qualified by the phrase at the earliest opportunity. But who will decide when that is?
For these and other reasons, some in Belfast and London lean toward a Trimble interpretation that demands much greater clarification in words and more definitive deeds before risking the future of moderate unionism in any election and therefore will vote for its postponement.