Last week’s breakthrough statement by the IRA — roundly welcomed by the two governments and the White House — would appear to pave the way towards a fresh deal between nationalists and unionists.
While the statement, with its orders for IRA members to dump arms and desist from all non-democratic activity, went much further than many expected it still is not enough to move Ian Paisley — at least not in the short term.
The DUP, though slow to condemn the statement outright, still insists that a lengthy “cooling off period” is needed before it can even consider conducting renewed talks.
The reports of retired Canadian general John De Chastelain and the International Monitoring Commission (IMC) in the coming months will first have to be scrutinized, say the party.
The IMC is due to report on whether the IRA has gone out of business first in October and then again in January. The January report will be deemed the most crucial coming almost six months after the IRA statement.
In the interim, the DUP will get worked up about the various side-deals republicans have brokered with the British government.
The speed with which British army engineers were seen to start dismantling army spy-posts in South Armagh last week seemed to take some unionists? breath away.
Demilitarization, however, is just the tip of the iceberg.
A vast plan to cut British troop numbers was unveiled Monday. Not only is the number of soldiers serving in the North to be halved but the Royal Irish Regiment — the reconstituted Ulster Defense Regiment so longed loathed by nationalists — is to be scrapped. British army support for Police Service of Northern Ireland patrols is also to stop within the next two years.
The Diplock court system is to go as is all emergency legislation relating exclusively to the North.
On the political front, plans to allow Northern politicians to speak in the Oireachtas are also being devised. Bertie Ahern’s advisor on the North, Martin Mansergh, wrote last Saturday that moves to do so should be finished quickly.
Meanwhile, the so-called on-the-runs, and this would include Sinn Fein’s U.S. representative Rita O?Hare, will eventually be free to return to the North under new legislation to be introduced by the British government.
With talk of devolved policing and justice arrangements it could be said that Sinn Fein has got much of its wish list.
By acting unilaterally, republicans have been rewarded with the sort of package Sinn Fein attempted to broker with the two governments in 2003 when David Trimble was still the leader of unionism.
Unionism, for the first time in many months, looks shaky. The DUP’s fuming over demilitarization and Ulster Unionist disgust at the prospect of nationalist politicians being allowed to speak in the D_il is little more than hot air at this stage. The deals have been done.
Paisley may again reiterate his belief that “the days of push-over unionism are gone,” but the average unionist in the street could be forgiven for thinking that unionist politicians have again been over-looked or “betrayed” by London.
The only major part of the jigsaw denied to republicans is devolved government.
Paisley warned Monday that his party would use its “veto” to stall any discussions with Sinn Fein.
A Sinn Fein minister is unlikely to sit around the cabinet table in Stormont for some time. The cautious approach adopted by the DUP in recent years has been rewarded at the ballot box. The party is not likely to now throw that same caution to the wind and join with Sinn Fein in an executive.
Instead it will spend the coming months biding its time. However, that time is not unlimited.
Sinn Fein has demanded that the two governments “put it up” to the DUP on foot of the IRA statement. Senior republicans sold the initiative to grass roots IRA members as a mechanism to put pressure on Paisley to finally do a deal.
If Paisley is unwilling, or unable to step up to the mark, says Sinn Fein, then the governments will have to look at an alternative way forward in the North, namely joint authority.
Just how much stomach there is for such a strategy in Downing Street and Government Buildings is unclear, Certainly, were the two administrations to warn the DUP that it was a simple choice between the Good Friday agreement and joint governance, the party may be pushed into a deal.
Such an approach would depend on whether the DUP takes Tony Blair and Ahern seriously.
The more hawkish within DUP ranks might call their bluff — not only aware of the significant resentment to joint authority within the Northern Ireland Office — but also within the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs.
However, the mood has changed somewhat in government circles in recent days.
The two governments have shown themselves more than willing to deliver significant changes North and South on foot of republican initiatives.
Unionist sensitivities about demilitarization have been trampled under foot. The UUP leader, Reg Empey, is meanwhile unlikely to get anywhere in his attempts to prevent the Irish government from introducing reforms to its own parliament.
Whether this mood change signals a more robust attitude towards Paisley and unionism in general remains to be seen. What is beyond doubt is that Blair and Ahern do not share the same level of concern as unionists about the bona fides of the IRA statement.