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Leading Article: At last, it is a time of peace and goodwill in Northern Ireland

THIS YEAR the phrase "season of peace" contains a literal truth: in Northern Ireland the guns, at long last, are silent, and it looks as though they may remain that way. If so, even the irreligious among us may be willing to admit that a sort of miracle has taken place in 1999. The Old Testament prophet Micah spoke of the time when men would beat their swords into ploughshares, a felicitous bronze age phrase for decommissioning. And if the IRA really starts to turn over its guns to John de Chastelain's commission by February, such biblical language will not seem inappropriate.

The release for the holiday season, yesterday, of every convicted terrorist in Ulster who has not yet been set free under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, brings familiar mixed feelings with it. We remember the identities of these people much less well than we do their victims. So when, for example, those of us who work at Canary Wharf, in London's Docklands, hear of the release of James McArdle, who was convicted of killing two innocent Asian newsagents with a one-ton truck bomb just three years ago, our memories of that terrible night come swimming back.

But if allowing McArdle to eat Christmas turkey with his relatives can forestall such wanton murder in the future, perhaps it is as well to swallow our misgivings.

A clear and moving expression of this point of view is being broadcast on radio by RTE in Ireland and the BBC in Northern Ireland today. In this broadcast, many of the senior political leaders associated with bringing about the new settlement in Northern Ireland talk about the lives and death of particular victims of the Troubles. They base their recollections on a remarkable book, Lost Lives, which tells the story of every one of the 3,367 people who were killed in the conflict in Northern Ireland. But they add to the bare bones of the tale their own experiences of these killings, which mostly have to do with reconciliation.

The SDLP's John Hume, for example, speaks of attending a funeral in 1993 after the killing of seven people in a bar in the village of Greysteel. This was at a time when he was being criticised for talking to Sinn Fein's President, Gerry Adams - but none the less the young daughter of one of the victims told him that they had been praying around her daddy's coffin that his talks would succeed. Bill Clinton similarly tells of how, shortly after the Omagh bombing, his resolution to see the peace process through to a successful conclusion was strengthened by the urging of the victims and their relatives whom he and his wife had met there.

Often we are told that looking back only causes old wounds to fester. This advice, however well meant, is otiose. Human beings do not forget the past, particularly when it is a source of deep pain; they relive it over and over again. The challenge is to avoid repeating it. Wisdom comes not just from looking forward in hope, but also in looking back with understanding.

For these reasons, mixed feelings are not inappropriate during this year's commemoration of the birth of the Prince of Peace. It may not yet be the time for celebrations in Northern Ireland; it is, rather, a time for remembering those who have been lost. Looking back with them in mind is our best hope for the future.