(by Ed Moloney, Sunday Tribune)
As Sinn Féin and the Ulster Unionist executives meet this weekend to decide whether to participate in Monday's Mitchell review of the Good Friday Agreement the British and Irish governments will be hoping, not without good reason, that the iron rule of the peace process will ensure a full room up at Stormont.
The iron rule, formulated way back in the 1980's in Peter Brooke's time, is that no party wants to be seen as responsible for collapsing political talks. Rather than risk the consequent opprobrium those parties that are reluctant participants would turn up to negotiations in the hope that the other fellows would do the wrecking for them.
Usually everyone would funk it and the talks would go ahead. With a few small exceptions the iron rule has worked like a dream throughout the peace process.
A much bigger question mark, however, must hang over the prospect of a successful review, one that ends up with Sinn Féin in cabinet, the Unionists achieving their goal of disarming the Provisional IRA and the Good Friday Agreement working as it architects intended.
It is difficult from this distance to judge which of the two key participants, Sinn Féin or the Ulster Unionists have the greatest problem arriving at a deal.
The troubles facing the Unionists are twofold. One is David Trimble's apparent lack of direction or put more accurately his seeming inconsistency. The response to the Patten leaks is a classic example. Reform of the RUC, far-reaching reform even, is a concomitant part of the peace process, a process which Trimble accepted when he signed up to the Good Friday Agreement.
Yet the Unionist leader is railing at changes in the name, uniform and structure of the RUC which he must have known were going to be the inevitable result of the Patten Commission's deliberations.
His stance on this and other issues of a similar nature is the result of what one astute Irish observer described as "his hugging the Paisleyite coast". His reluctance to swim further off-shore, his inability to make a real break with traditional Unionist values compete with a common sense realisation that getting Sinn Féin into government is the best way to draw the IRA's remaining teeth. The result is that he often appears to be all over the place politically, his leadership direction confused and contradictory.
A better example perhaps is his recent hard line on the quality of the IRA's ceasefire brought on by the killing of Charles Bennett, the Florida arms smuggling operation and recent IRA expulsions.
His anger and indignation although controlled have been barely disguised. But examine what happened throughout August when the Bennett killing and gun-running episodes had just taken place. A three man working party appointed and approved by himself held four meetings with a similar team from Sinn Féin to discuss options short of decommissioning and short of a fully-fledged executive.
Most significantly of all the talks were based on the assumption that in the short term the IRA could not decommission but given political progress might. Implicit in all this surely is an acceptance of the view that those IRA actions in July did not really amount to a breach of the ceasefire but were more palliatives for an anxious IRA support base.
The Unionists' second problem is the quite evident dissent and discord which permeates the upper reaches of the party. John Taylor appears to be on the verge of writing off the peace process entirely, urging his colleagues to break off all contact with Sinn Féin and predicting failure for the Mitchell review. Jeffrey Donaldson meanwhile is pushing for a judicial review of Mo Mowlam's ceasefire ruling which if successful could result in the suspension of prisoner releases and the undermining of the Adams-McGuinness leadership.
There are now two distinct tendencies in the Ulster Unionist party. Many Unionists will be concerned that Monday's review could begin a process that results in the two splitting apart.
The picture on the Provo side of the house is no clearer. To their base the Sinn Féin leadership is still repeating the decommissioning mantra of five years ago when IRA disarming first became an issue: "not a bullet, not an ounce".
They are also giving their supporters the same explanation they gave in June when Tony Blair announced the "seismic" shift in IRA thinking on disarming - that the offer to disarm was merely a ploy to discomfit and expose Unionism and anyhow was meaningless since Sinn Féin didn't have the authority to cut a deal on guns.
On th other hand, like the shark, Sinn Féin must forever move forwards in this process or risk destruction. Any faltering, any moves which smack of withdrawing from the peace process risks serious questions being asked both internally and externally about the real meaning of the Adams-McGuinness strategy. A stalling of the process furthermore injects an element of uncontrollability into events which quite conceivably could see republicans slide bit by bit back into war.
The evidence however, is still of a nervous IRA base, anxious that their leaders may yet let them down them on decommissioning. The killing of Charles Bennett, the Florida gun-running and more recently the wave of expulsions suggest a continuing need on the part of the republican leadership to re-assure their supporters.
George Mitchell performed the trick in April 1998 by making it impossible for the Northern parties to reject his plan without appearing to be rude to President Clinton's man. The sleight of hand in the trick of course was that the Mitchell plan was not his but really belonged to the two governments. They'll all be doing well to give a repeat performance this time.