Leading Article: All parties need to listen to the people of Northern Ireland

Click to follow
THE ULSTER Unionists were wrong not to seize the opportunity for peaceful power-sharing for which the Prime Minister has fought so hard. But, although a setback for the peace process, it is not a death-knell. The vast majority of the constitutional architecture of the Good Friday agreement still stands, and both Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern will want to preserve this. The principle of majority consent over the constitutional status of the province is in place, doing away with Articles Two and Three of the Irish Constitution which laid claim to the North. An equality agenda, human rights reform and the new assembly are among the other steps forward. The sticky issue of decommissioning is simply the final hurdle. There is still hope that the Ulster Unionists' desire to see a parliament in Stormont will, over time, ease their hostility. There is still the possibility, though it is distant, that Sinn Fein will persuade the IRA to decommission some of its arsenal before a parliament is formed. Even a token gesture might help. Most important, however, is the overwhelming desire of the people of Northern Ireland to see a lasting peace.

It is understandably difficult for the Ulster Unionists to give up what they may see as their final ground. They have made a number of what must be painful concessions so far. But they have not seen one grenade destroyed. From the Unionist point of view, it must be hard to believe that decommissioning will ever really happen. Perhaps that is why it took them only 15 minutes to discard the reassurances that Tony Blair had put together for them. But peace is a hard process for the parties involved. Often one side, if not both, feels that it has given far more than it has received - as those in Northern Ireland may feel that they know only too well. And the Tories' constant complaints about the pace at which prisoners are being released has not helped David Trimble.

However, making peace work is a goal that must be still be reached. The Ulster Unionists need to grit their teeth and make a leap of faith, for the sake of the country of which they are so proud.

The ceasefire has brought new prosperity to Northern Ireland. Companies have been willing to invest in a country that is no longer ravaged by bombings. And the banks have been willing to lend. People in Northern Ireland who never had jobs before can now find employment. Their quality of life and the atmosphere in which they can live have improved enormously. But economics is not the only reason why the people of Northern Ireland want peace. They see all too clearly the senselessness of violence and the misery it brings. And they have united to make their views known, with campaigns such as the women's peace movement and multi-denominational protests against violence. It is now time for this united voice to make itself heard again. One of the structural problems with negotiations such as those going on in Northern Ireland is that the political activists tend to represent extreme positions. Between the views of the Ulster Unionists and of Sinn Fein lie those of the majority of the people of Northern Ireland, who just want peace. And these are the people whom all parties need to listen to.

We can now expect to see a lull during the summer break. By the time the negotiators return to the table, there may be a new Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. A fresh face could dispel the cloud of a stalemate, and move the peace process on. For on it must go.

There is time for at least two more pushes for peace before the April 2000 deadline, which may take the parties back to the drawing-board. Between now and then the negotiators must simply keep on trying to move the two sides together, inch by inch. And the people of Northern Ireland must not despair.