Leading article: A moment to praise the men of peace in Northern Ireland

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The Independent Culture
THE PRIME Minister spoke of a seismic shift in the politics of Northern Ireland during the summer's failed negotiations. He was premature, but we have a seismic shift now. David Trimble's achievement in bringing a majority of the majority Unionist party into a power-sharing executive today is truly extraordinary. It is also, without exaggeration, heroic.

For, on the face of things, nothing has changed since the summer. The republican movement has given no guarantees that it will disarm. The Unionist demand that republicans give up "guns before government" has not been met.Mr Trimble insisted that the Unionists and Sinn Fein should "jump together". It has not happened. He was perfectly explicit about it on Saturday, saying to Mr Adams, "We've jumped - you follow."

What has changed - the seismic shift - is Mr Trimble's attitude to the republicans' expressed desire to bring their terrorist war to an end. Having sat down face to face with Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams for hour upon hour of patient negotiation, Mr Trimble now believes that IRA disarmament will happen. Indeed, he is so sure that it will happen that he is prepared to stake his leadership on it, with his post-dated letter of resignation promising to quit if disarmament has not begun by February.

Of course it is quite wrong that he should be brought to this position. The IRA should have started to disarm immediately after the Good Friday Agreement was reached last year; indeed, the IRA should never have been armed in the first place. But in the real world of moral compromises, it was necessary to admit their leaders into executive office before the distrustful republican grassroots would really believe, in Mr Adams's words, that "politics works". One by one, all the possible legitimate grievances of the republican community have to be removed. Thus the bluff of Sinn Fein's rhetoric can be called - and there will be no social base to sustain "the armed struggle".

It is an unpleasant business for any Unionist, and indeed for anyone who abhors the use of terror for political ends, to have to concede so much to a republican movement that still contains such a large minority committed to the use of violence. We sympathise with Willie Thompson, the Unionist MP who quit the party saying that he could not go into government with people who had murdered his friends, but in the end we do not agree with him.

Because always the question the doubters must answer is: what do they propose instead? The 42 per cent on the Ulster Unionist Council who voted No on Saturday did so for understandable reasons of history and emotion, but they do not have any alternative to put forward. It may be tempting, of course, for those living in the rest of the United Kingdom to wonder whether an alternative is needed at all. We have had more than two years of ceasefire. Imperfect it may be, but it is infinitely preferable to the situation that existed previously. Why not simply carry on waiting for the IRA to deliver on its pledge in the Good Friday Agreement to disarm?

As if in answer to that question came the announcement yesterday from the Basque separatist movement ETA that it was ending its 14-month ceasefire. That should underline the point that a ceasefire is not enough without political leadership on both sides - and an honest broker of the stature of Senator George Mitchell to force both sides to keep talking until they come up with a deal. The Spanish government will now have to learn the hard way, the same way we learnt in Ireland, that the analogy of the bicycle, however cliched, is accurate: that if a peace process does not keep going forward, it falls over.

Let us, therefore, pause to apportion praise today. Alongside Mr Trimble's heroism let us recognise the superhuman patience of Senator Mitchell and the serious application of Peter Mandelson, the new Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. But let us not pause too long before moving on, both to put pressure on the republicans to deliver, and to make it easier for them to do so.