In Belfast on the night of July 2nd, there were four weddings and a funeral. One by one, British Prime Minister Tony Blair; his Irish counterpart, Bertie Ahern; John Hume, leader of the moderate Catholic Social Democratic and Labor Party; and Gerry Adams, president of the IRA's legal political wing, Sinn Fein, stepped up to the microphones at Stormont Castle to declare the start of a long and happy life for the partnership of unionism and nationalism.

Then a somber David Trimble, leader of the dominant Protestant Ulster Unionist Party and first minister designate of Northern Ireland, came forward. He buried the deal that had been worked out by the two governments after a week of tortuous negotiations with words like "unfair" and "fundamentally flawed." It was, even by the standards of Northern Ireland, an unsettling spectacle. If, after five days in each other's company, one of the key participants seemed hardly to be on the same planet, what chance is there at this late stage in the year-long negotiations for the peace process to stay alive?

In the resolution of bloody conflicts, the difficult can be achieved quickly but the impossible takes a little longer. After the frustration, tedium and sheer pigheadedness of the wrangling over the decommissioning of paramilitary weapons--the one issue that is holding up the implementation of last year's historic Good Friday agreement--it is well to remember how recently any kind of deal on the future of Northern Ireland seemed a pipe dream. But before we lose patience with the maneuvering over decommissioning and call down a plague on the houses of both Ulster unionism and Irish republicanism, we should recall that haggling and posturing are a lot better than the 30 years of murdering and maiming that preceded them.

If a reminder of the underlying divisions is necessary, it can be found in the bitter tensions that continue to surround the Orange Order's planned celebration of tomorrow's Protestant festival. The potential for violence as Orange parades are blocked or rerouted around Catholic areas dramatizes the clash of cultures in Northern Ireland between a resurgent Catholic nationalism embittered by a long history of discrimination and a Protestant unionism at once enraged and disoriented by what it sees as three decades of loss and betrayal.

If there is not enough common ground for agreement about whether some men in bowler hats can walk down a road, how could there be any possibility of agreement on the infinitely more delicate business of bringing the political wing of a terrorist army into a devolved government?

But there is another way of looking at it. In a sense, the very frustration of the recent inconclusive talks at Stormont is a mark of the astonishing success of the peace process. We are frustrated not because there is no solution to the Northern Ireland problem, but because a settlement that once seemed like a madly optimistic fantasy is now so tantalizingly close to becoming a reality.

What made complete agreement so elusive in the recent marathon negotiations is that the immediate future seems too good to be true. In a movement as ideologically driven as the Sinn Fein/IRA axis, an acceptance that the decommissioning of weapons is in the cards is tantamount to a commitment that it will happen. But for unionists battered by years of being under siege, it is hard to come to terms with the fact that the IRA is on the brink of dissolving itself. The demand for "certainty" that may yet scupper the whole deal reflects an inability to believe that the prize on offer is not booby-trapped.

In that, the peace process is the victim of its own success. By creating possibilities that could not have been envisioned a few years ago, it has pushed unionists into a place they had never imagined. The anguish they are experiencing now is a function of the sheer difficulty of adjusting one's view of the world.

The Good Friday agreement was, and remains, an achievement so brilliant that it gives politics a good name. None of its opponents, either on the extreme fringes of republicanism or on the fundamentalist wing of unionism, have ever articulated even a vaguely credible alternative to the way it opens up possibilities for each side without closing them down for the other. But the agreement gave certain hostages to fortune. And fortune is demanding a heavy ransom before it releases them.

The first hostage taken was the Sinn Fein/IRA relationship. For the process to be possible at all, Sinn Fein had to be encouraged to place a rhetorical distance between itself and the IRA, even though no one really believes that the two organizations are not intimately connected. There was a belief--ultimately justified by the course of events--that if Sinn Fein was allowed to pretend that it was a normal political party, it would begin to behave like one. Slowly and carefully, the party's leaders, Adams, Martin McGuinness and their colleagues, had to be moved out of the category of untouchable terrorists--who, by definition, could not be involved in democratic negotiations--and into the category of recognized political representatives.

That strategy was both necessary and successful. But what was good for negotiating a peace deal was bad for negotiating the decommissioning of IRA weapons. It allowed Sinn Fein to present itself as a political party like any other, representing its electorate and entitled to share in power purely on that basis. It could insist that weapons were a matter for the IRA, a faceless organization somewhere beyond the reach of the political process. Sinn Fein could take all the gains of the peace process--the release of IRA prisoners, for example--but insist that the bill, in terms of decommissioning, be sent to someone else.

Ultimately, unionists (and indeed mainstream nationalists) were never going to buy that. At some stage, Sinn Fein would have to be forced to accept that, for the purposes of the peace process, it does represent the IRA. The Good Friday agreement requires that all paramilitary weapons--both nationalist and loyalist--be destroyed by the end of May 2000. Under the agreed-upon procedures, the IRA itself will ultimately have to deal directly with an international commission headed by Canadian Gen. John de Chastelain. But, in the meantime, someone has to be able to make commitments on its behalf. Sinn Fein, however, has always insisted that the IRA is a separate organization and that the party can do no more than "use its influence" with the IRA.

That, essentially, is what the current row is about. Unionists ask, not without reason, how they can proceed on the basis of assurances from Sinn Fein if, at the same time, there is no guarantee that a promise from Adams will be binding on the men who actually control the weapons. What they need is a statement from the IRA itself that it is actually committed to the disposal of its arms by May 2000.

The other hostage of Good Friday that has an important bearing on the way the row has been conducted has to do with language. The Good Friday deal was all about the creative use of ambiguity. It was achieved by stretching words as far as they could possibly go, constructing sentences that seemed, at one and the same time, to underwrite the partition of Ireland and the union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and to accept the legitimacy of all peaceful attempts to break the link.

Key political concepts such as sovereignty and nationality have been extended so that the competing claims of the British and Irish traditions can be accommodated in an open-ended arrangement. The people of Northern Ireland have been given the right to be British, Irish "or both"--the first time the notion of multiple allegiance has been written into an international treaty. Instead of seeking precise definitions of the nature of the territory, the agreement enshrines the radical principle that whatever can be agreed to by a sufficient consensus of both traditions will happen. Everything is up for grabs--so long as nothing is grabbed by force.

But the one thing that doesn't yield to such rich ambiguity is weaponry. The questions that come into play when the disposal of paramilitary weapons is being discussed--When? How many?--are completely different from the questions about the future of Northern Ireland that the agreement tries to answer. That is why decommissioning had to be left aside on Good Friday. It is also why it has proved so difficult to resolve since then. The parties, especially Sinn Fein, were being asked, almost literally, to speak a different language from the one they had grown accustomed to using in the rest of the process. But since the language that is most familiar in Northern Ireland is that of blood, shame and despair, the attempt, however tortuous, to find a new form of words, is well worth the effort.

Fintan O'Toole is a columnist for the Irish Times and the New York Daily News. A shorter version of this article appeared in London's Independent newspaper.

What They Think

A new opinion poll shows strong support in Ireland--north and south of the border--for "the way forward," an agreement reached by the British and Irish governments on July 2. The agreement calls for an inclusive Northern Ireland executive to assume power next Sunday. It also says that all paramilitary groups must begin decommissioning their arms within 30 days of the execuitve's formation and complete the weapons hand-over by May 2000.

The Irish Times/MRBI poll, published in Dublin yesterday, suggests a widespread desire for decommissioning but little faith that it will be completed on schedule. Among the survey of 1,000 voters in each of the jursidictions (in the Republic and in Northern Ireland), a clear majority in both areas responded positively that an all-party executive should be set up on July 18 as proposed by the two governments.

Other key questions included:

Do you believe decommissioning should go ahead as planned?

Northern Ireland

Yes: 75%

No: 18%

Republic of Ireland

Yes: 85%

No: 8%

Do you believe all paramilitary decommissioning will be completed

by May 2000?

Northern Ireland

No: 54%

Yes: 26%

Republic of Ireland

Yes: 27%

No: 55%