Leading Article: Hold fast against the men of violence

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THIS ST Patrick's day, it would be a pleasure to reflect on good news from Ireland. We have had enough such news over the past couple of years to be even more shocked and depressed at sectarian murders than we were in the years of all-out conflict. So depression prevails today, for the murder of Rosemary Nelson exposes the remorseless logic now closing around hopes for peace.

Mrs Nelson was a committed, tough civil rights lawyer. She represented her clients with dedication, just as she fought the corner of the Garvaghy Road residents with admirable determination. She was the perfect example of the civil society Northern Ireland so desperately needs, if a new politics is to rise from the debris of the old. Her death in fact constitutes an attack on the rule of law itself, and on all people of good will.

But it has a wider meaning, as a political act, designed by the Red Hand Defenders to lure similar republican splinter groups into armed response. There must be a very real chance they will be successful. Certainly they have provided their adversaries with every excuse not to begin arms decommissioning before the devolution deadline, and thus may secure their aim: the collapse of political progress and a return to general violence.

In a perfect world, those parties signed up to the Good Friday Agreement would ignore this latest murder, designed as it is to force them to recoil from political engagement. But the situation is deteriorating day by day, leaving the party leaders very little room for manoeuvre. And if more mature voices are stilled, the men of violence will soon be back in their familiar role as spokesmen for traumatised communities.

All may not be lost. The progress made in the last few years, bringing both nationalists and Unionists to once unimaginable compromises, will not all be reversed overnight. The Royal Ulster Constabulary's awareness of nationalist concerns, calling in Kent's Chief Constable to allay fears of bias, is one example of this progress. Something may thus be salvaged from the intractable wrangle the peace process has become. If the deaths of brave citizens such as Rosemary Nelson are to mean anything, we must hold our nerves over the next few difficult weeks