YESTERDAY'S series of announcements in London, Belfast and Dublin were described in advance as having been “carefully choreographed” after weeks of intense and secret negotiations involving, mainly, the Ulster Protestant leader David Trimble and the Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams, but also the British and Irish governments. Yet at the end of a day of frequent communiques and interviews it seemed almost as if the principal dancer had not appeared. The four little words that everyone was waiting to hear from the IRA “The war is over” had not been heard. Nor had evidence of the IRA's latest decommisioning been seen. David Trimble was obviously furious and put on hold any further plans for the election called for November 23 before an emergency meeting of his Ulster Unionist Party on Wednesday of next week. Opinions differed as to whether the lack of the four words mattered or not, given that the IRA said further decommissioning of arms had taken place and General John de Chastelain, the Canadian officer charged with validating IRA decommissioning, confirmed that this was so and that the number of weapons put out of use had been “considerably larger” than in previous decommissioning exercises. Mr Trimble dismissed this process as not transparent enough.

DURING the interminable negotiations for peace in Northern Ireland everyone has become familiar with the IRA's inability to express itself in unequivocal terms. Those sympathetic to the Republican cause say there is no reason why the IRA should say “the war is over” because it would imply that it had been defeated. And, anyway, wasn't Gerry Adams' statement yesterday enough: “Sinn Fein's position in one of total and absolute commitment to exclusively democratic means of resolving differences. We are opposed to any use or threat of force for any political purpose.”? Weren't those the strongest and most explicit words the Sinn Fein president has ever used in support of the peace process? The answer is that in most circumstances the combination of Mr Adams' assurances and the IRA's long cease-fire and subsequent decommissioning of weapons would be enough. But in Northern Ireland's exceptional circumstances it may not be. All of yesterday's statements were related to the initial announcement that elections for the Northern Ireland Assembly will be held on November 26 after a suspension of almost one year. The problem is that there remains in Northern Ireland a substantial hard core of Protestants not only the Rev Ian Paisley - who do not trust Mr Adams or the IRA and will seize on any evidence they can find to block co-operation with the Republicans. The lack of those four little words and Mr Trimble's dissatisfaction with the decommissioning process could be enough for that hard core to defeat Mr Trimble at the elections in a month's time and thereby make a power-sharing Assembly unworkable.

AT the end of an extraordinary day - unprecedented in my experience of negotiations of this kind - the issue was whether the Republicans could be persuaded to agree to the provision of visual or detailed documented evidence of the weapons put beyond use. In a very, very brief press conference at 6.30pm Belfast time, in a break from the negotiations, Mr Blair likened the hold-up to “the odd glitch” which they were working to resolve. He sounded up-beat and said everything else had been agreed. But, sooner or later, we shall need to know how a day that had promised so much ended in such difficulty. Why did what had been called an “understanding” between Mr Adams and Mr Trimble turn out instead to be a disatrous “misunderstanding”.


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