Between peace and war, only words

John Lloyd finds the Ulster Unionists once more on the brink of withdrawing from the government of N

The battle in Northern Ireland now - the Real IRA excepted - is at least normal and bloodless: it is the age-old one, inseparable from politics, between words and their meanings. But, because a resumption of bloody struggle is always possible, it is an intense battle. The war is over; but it may start again.

In a recent essay in the New York Review of Books, the Irish writer Fintan O'Toole wrote that the IRA's acceptance, this spring, of a formula that puts their weapons "beyond use" - and of inspection of their arms dumps by Cyril Ramaphosa, formerly the secretary general of the African National Congress and Martti Ahtisaari, the former president of Finland - was evidence that the terrorists had been "forced to abandon their simultaneous bet on democracy and terror". "The scale of this breakthrough is monumental," O'Toole went on. "In effect, the IRA is accepting that armed violence has no legitimate role in the new context created by the Belfast ['Good Friday'] Agreement."

It could be added that the scale of the breakthrough for the Unionists is just as breathtaking. The Ulster Unionist Party, the largest political group for the majority community in Northern Ireland, has accepted that it will form an administration that includes ministers from Sinn Fein, the IRA's political wing. It has done this while the IRA remains armed, and its Army Council, which includes Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, the leaders of Sinn Fein - the latter is education minister in the Northern Ireland administration - refuses to give an unambiguous declaration that the war is over.

This is unprecedented in the world. The Unionists are sitting in a cabinet with terrorist representatives. For its part, Sinn Fein is assisting in the government of a state it says should not exist. It is what the Unionist official Dermot Nesbitt - who was instrumental in devising the Belfast Agreement - calls "the maximalist solution" for integrating those who speak for a minority into the political process.

So logic dictates that O'Toole is right and that the "simultaneous bet" on democracy and terrorism is truly off. But Unionists do not believe it, and they do not believe that the Republicans believe it. And they are now deeply sceptical about the position of the Ulster Unionists, and of their leader, David Trimble.

Last month, in a by-election in South Antrim - the Unionists' second safest seat - their candidate, David Burnside, was defeated by the Democratic Unionist Party (Paisleyite) candidate, the Reverend William McCrea. The DUP has never accepted the agreement. Unionists like to point out, as they did repeatedly at their conference in Belfast last weekend, that the DUP is hypocritical because it benefits from the salaries and facilities of the Northern Ireland Assembly and the government, while seeking to bring it down. But the DUP line is winning support, even among "moderate", pro-agreement Unionists.

One of the delegates at the conference on Saturday was a member of the Northern Ireland Assembly named James Leslie, a younger leading light in a rather ageing party. His background as a merchant banker working abroad also sets him at contrast with a party whose members are still largely drawn from the farming and small-business communities. Strongly pro-agreement, he now says that "almost everyone I speak to is deeply disappointed. They see terrorists released, the RUC [police force] being changed, the flags and symbols of Britishness being removed - with no weapons handed in. That's what they see. It's incredibly hard to oppose that feeling."

Politics are thus deeply asymmetrical. The Unionists are split, not only between the DUP and the Ulster Unionists, but also within the Ulster Unionists themselves. When Ken Maginnis, the party's security spokesman, gave a clumsy speech to the conference, pouring sarcasm on those who criticised Trimble for being over-accommodating, he was loudly and constantly barracked. The hecklers were mostly tough-looking young men or tougher-looking elderly ladies - a formidable and influential section of the UUP. There is also a good deal of distrust between Unionists and "their" (British) government. Though the leadership regards Peter Mandelson, the Northern Ireland Secretary, as much better than Mo Mowlam, they certainly do not see him as a Unionist sympathiser: his comment, some years ago, that he favoured the ultimate conclusion of a united Ireland is constantly recalled.

The nationalists, on the other hand, do not seem split. The moderates, in the Social Democratic and Labour Party, the Sinn Fein republicans and the Irish government itself, have effectively united around a common position. This insists that the Northern Ireland Assembly continues to operate, irrespective of progress on arms decommissioning, that the task of the Unionist leadership is to sell the agreement to Unionists more effectively than it has so far, and that the Patten report on the reform of the RUC should be carried through to the letter - including the removal of the crown above the harp on the RUC badge and of the Union Jack above RUC stations.

An internal British government memorandum, leaked earlier this year, described Brian Cowen, the Irish foreign minister and as such the chief negotiator on the North, as one who wished for every trace of Britishness to be removed from Northern Ireland. Relations between Cowen and Mandelson are frigid, and the British think that the Irish government is doing nothing to assist Trimble - that Irish ministers are even writing him off as a man who cannot command his party.

Over the next few weeks, we will see whether he does or not. Certainly, he commanded his conference. Aided by Maginnis's inept but useful drawing of fire, he came at the hall in a Presbyterian spirit, disappointed in having to remind the restless part of his flock of their blessings.

"Are their memories so short?" asked Trimble. "Are they so blinkered that they have forgotten what direct rule was like - Unionism sidelined, virtually ignored? Unionism is on the inside now!" And, in an effort to make them face the scale of the "monumental breakthrough", he threw back at them the position of the hated Martin McGuinness: "Let's be honest. McGuinness has been influencing government here since he first met Willie Whitelaw [then Northern Ireland secretary] in 1972. That influence was hidden. Now it is in the open, where he is accountable. The man who tried to destroy partition is helping to administer Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom, on behalf of Her Majesty and on the basis of British law. This is the real seismic shift!"

He was cheered, and about 75 per cent of the hall stood for him. But in the next few weeks, he will face the 800-strong Ulster Unionist Council, the governing body of this ultra-democratic party: and there, the fears which now affect moderates such as James Leslie and the anxiety about electoral collapse after South Antrim will come through more strongly than in a platform-dominated conference with no executive powers. The restless ones have a champion: Jeffrey Donaldson - like Trimble, a Westminster MP, the youngest in the Unionist group, a Trimble supporter until finally impelled into internal opposition by his fear that the last deal - to give the IRA still more time - had overstrained the political tolerance of Unionists. Donaldson is a mediocre speaker, and has shown no obvious leadership traits as yet. But he is now taking on the responsibility for articulating the Unionists' rejectionist position. He may, in doing so, have to take on the Unionist leadership.

I heard, from a senior official in the Dublin government, a view that amounted to saying "so what?" to that possibility. In his version, the agreement - which is between the British and Irish governments - locked the participants into a process from which they cannot escape. The process obliges them to live together, and to settle their differences. It gave the Unionists much of what they had wanted - a guarantee that the province would remain British while the majority wished it, a radical amendment of the Irish constitution so that it no longer claims the North, and an assembly that Unionists dominate. In return, they had to accommodate republicanism. If Donaldson - or any other Unionist leader - took over from Trimble, he would wake the day after his celebration to find that the constraints were the same, and he would have to live and work with them if he did not want to lose all that Unionism had gained.

There is much in this (though it greatly understates the disaster it would be if Trimble had to go). Indeed, much of it is Trimble's "count your blessings" case. The possibility remains, however - and it is at present more likely than not - that the Unionists will not agree to continue to sit in the government of the province until the IRA makes a further move on weapons.

Trimble believes that the war is over and that his job is now to show Unionism making a success of running Northern Ireland, and garner support - if possible, from both confessional communities - for that success.

His close colleague, the trade and industry minister Sir Reg Empey, told the conference that unless Northern Ireland did become vibrant once more, it would lose out to a booming republic, given that power came not so much from the barrel of a gun as from a successful economy.

It was a rare moment, in a Northern Ireland political meeting, where politics was about the economy: it was a poignant reminder of what might be.

But is not yet. At the end, the words remain - and what they mean. Beneath the formal agreements lie the deeper movements of society and the fears arising from them: and the centuries of fear, distrust and mutual incomprehension. Here, a Presbyterian spirit confronts a Catholic one on grounds that most of their co-religionists elsewhere have long since evacuated. It is bracing, but unyielding. It sets itself against what it sees as the "political correctness" or "trendiness" of respect for each other's traditions, parity of esteem, cultural pluralism and all the other verbal baggage that surrounds compromise and the effort to find peace. These words, deadening as they may be, are the padding between peace and war.

The padding, though, has worn very thin: we may be down to metal on metal again before the year ends.