Northern Ireland will enter 1999 with only one major obstacle lying across the path to a stable peace: refusal so far by the Irish Republican Army and its political wing, Sinn Fein, to agree to the handover of IRA guns and explosives.
Canadian Gen. John de Chastelain, head of the arms decommissioning body under last April's peace agreement, says he is "guardedly hopeful" that progress on "this key issue" would soon be made.
"Over the months we have had a number of useful, constructive contacts with a number of the parties, including Sinn Fein," General de Chastelain says. He notes with approval that Martin McGuinness, Sinn Fein's chief strategist, was the go-between for the IRA's contacts with the decommissioning body.
At the weekend de Chastelain greeted as "modest but significant" the decision of the Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF) - a small Protestant paramilitary group - to hand in some of its weapons and explosives. Television pictures showing LVF guns being cut up and destroyed cranked up the pressure on the IRA to follow suit and added to pressure coming from another direction.
Last week, after long and bitter negotiations, David Trimble, the Protestant politician selected to lead Northern Ireland's future government, and his appointed deputy, Seamus Mallon of the main Catholic-supported Social Democratic and Labor Party, agreed on the shape of a future Northern Ireland executive body, due to open for business by the end of February.
They also agreed to the creation of six cross-border committees to coordinate contacts between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, which Catholics hope will lead to eventual reunification.
Sinn Fein will be able to claim two of the 10 ministerial seats in the ruling body - but only if the IRA first begins to decommission its arms.
"Now it is up to [Sinn Fein leader Gerry] Adams to persuade the IRA to act. Without that, Sinn Fein cannot expect to take its seats on the executive," says Mr. Trimble, co-winner of this year's Nobel Peace Prize.
Mr. Adams maintains that his party deserves to take the seats anyway, as the April accord only sets May 2000 as the deadline for complete disarmament by the IRA and Protestant paramilitaries.
De Chastelain refused to comment on what kind of compromise could break the impasse. Trimble has declined to back suggestions that a symbolic handing-in of arms would suffice. There have been reports that de Chastelain and Trimble might agree to the IRA itself destroying some of its weapons, under supervision. There is little sign, however, of this happening in the immediate future.
Monday's London Times quoted Ronnie Flanagan, Northern Ireland's chief of police, as saying there was "no softening" in the IRA's position. Mr. Flanagan said the "critical mass" of the republican movement remained strongly opposed to any form of decommissioning at this stage.
Amid the backstage maneuvering, de Chastelain's position could prove critical. It will be largely up to him to decide whether or not arrangements for a potential arms handover are credible.
Colm Larkin, special adviser to Mr. Mallon, says, "If de Chastelain were to say he was satisfied with a weapons decommissioning proposal from the IRA, his statement would carry enormous authority."
"The trouble is," Larkin adds, "he could make such a statement only once."
In another development, police in Belfast have begun searching for the bodies of two men presumed murdered by the IRA in the 1970s. The police say privately they are acting on tips from the IRA. Since the peace process began, the IRA has been under pressure from families of the disappeared to reveal where as many as 20 people are buried.