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Time for police and politicians to do what it says on the tin

Testing times are ahead for Northern Ireland. The so-called peace process is shaken by dissident terrorism. Draconian spending cuts hang over an already poor economy.

The future leadership of the two main unionist parties is uncertain. And another election is less than nine months away.

Put together, these issues represent a formidable challenge to the Stormont Executive's ability to survive. Let's start with the dissidents. The peace process depends on peace. The more dissident terrorists spread their tentacles, the less peace we have, and the more Sinn Fein's ability to deliver their side of the deal will be called into question.

The community signed up to a total peace, not the partial peace that we currently have. The peace process is not delivering what is says on the tin - that the war is over, the IRA is no more and that the Police Service of Northern Ireland will have full co-operation from all quarters of the community. Plainly, as more and more employees of the PSNI are advised to look under their cars every morning and terrorist incidents spread, the tin looks more misleading by the day. Admittedly, Gerry Adams says he has written to the dissident groups, but only one has replied and is willing to enter any dialogue.

Republican life has turned full circle from the 1990s, when John Hume was the persuader for peace in secret meetings with Adams, just as the latter attempts, somewhat forlornly, with today's dissident republicans. We are entitled to ask: what real clout does the Sinn Fein leadership have with these people, many of whom appear to be former associates, using precisely the same tactics to unsettle the community as Gerry Adams himself employed for most of his adult life?

The coming months will tell us a lot about Sinn Fein. No matter how impressive its political organisation and strength have become, an old and new generation in republican heartlands is testing its will and rejecting its leaders.

If the Sinn Fein leadership cannot put a stop to the new terror threat, then the buck stops with Chief Constable Matt Baggott. The coming months will be make or break for him also.

Little to date suggests that the PSNI has cracked the dissidents' omerta code, but that is what Mr Baggott's community policing is expected to deliver. The theory goes something like this: the more representative the Police Service is of the community it serves, the more likely will terrorists and criminals fail to find a hiding place from the law. The practice, however, appears to be very different from the theory.

On the evidence of dissident activity, the prospects for community-style policing in tough areas are not promising. Mr Baggott patrolling in the centre of Crossmaglen earlier this year now looks like a premature and ill-advised stunt.

Is the PSNI really reaching down to the grassroots of our society for all the new emphasis on community policing? Certainly the dissident threat puts it up to Mr Baggott to demonstrate that this delivers more results than is apparent to this point.

Away from terrorism, October 20 looms like an economic Armageddon over Westminster and Stormont. No amount of spin-doctoring will paper over the impact of what is to befall us all when the cuts in government spending are revealed.

If David Cameron and Nick Clegg were to face another General Election less than seven months after October 20, would they survive? Probably not. Yet that is what is expected of the Stormont Assembly and Executive.

We can safely assume the Executive will probably devote even more time to ducking and weaving, trying to postpone unpopular cuts, and generally directing as much blame as possible in London's direction.

The nature of the spending cuts will do nothing for the fragile stability of the peace process. Nor will the continued uncertainty over who leads unionism.

Which brings us to Peter Robinson and the question of his future as leader of the DUP and/or First Minister. His leadership as First Minister has been uninspiring, unlike that of Mr McGuinness, who has the knack of saying all the right things at the right time. Robinson is trailing a long way behind in the popularity stakes, as a winter of deep discontent looms and yet another election beckons.

So there we have it. There are no easy answers, but rather plenty of difficult decisions. Perhaps the end of the road for some of our established politicians, and the start of another for others.

And I haven't even mentioned the Pope in Britain, or the Queen thinking of coming to Ireland.