Leading Article: Whatever Mr Blair says, Wednesday is not a real deadline

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ONE THING journalists do know about is deadlines. We know the difference between a real deadline and one that has been set arbitrarily to make life easier for an editor. Wednesday's deadline for the Northern Irish peace talks is not a real one.

Everyone knows what the Prime Minister is trying to do, and his aim is admirable. When he says this is the "only hope of peace", that there is no "Plan B", that if this deadline is missed the Good Friday agreement falls, he is trying to force Gerry Adams and David Trimble to move the last inch so that their fingers touch.

However, it is dangerous for Tony Blair to apply to the Northern Ireland peace the absolutist language that he applied to the Balkans war. If Nato had compromised with Slobodan Milosevic, that would have been a disaster. But if Mr Adams and Mr Trimble cannot agree by midnight on Wednesday, the sky stays where it is; they simply have to keep trying, and Mr Blair will have lost an important modicum of credibility.

The truth is that the gap between the two sides is not all that great. Mr Trimble made a highly significant step towards a deal yesterday, by demanding that the republican movement "accept the obligation" to disarm - without insisting that the start of disarmament itself was a condition of Sinn Fein joining the government of Northern Ireland. That obligation is one that Sinn Fein has already accepted, by signing the Good Friday agreement. The problem has been with the IRA, which has always insisted that it will never disarm - hence the play with words over a "gesture of reconciliation" earlier this year. The only way forward is to accept that the actions of the IRA, which was not technically a party to the Good Friday agreement, speak louder than its words.

Whether or not Martin McGuinness utters the words "the war is over", that is the assumption behind the republican engagement with the peace process. The IRA has stopped its terror campaign (which it liked to think of as a war of national liberation), on the expectation that Sinn Fein will get a place at the top table.

The Prime Minister is trying to bully the Unionists into giving Sinn Fein that place by raising the stakes. But the Unionists should see that it is in their interest, as it has been for years, to call the republicans' bluff on their professed desire for peace.

Mr Trimble seems to be doing his bit, and, what is more, he seems to have the hardliner Jeffrey Donaldson on board as a member of the negotiating team. If Sinn Fein can make similar concessions on what Mr Blair called the "sequencing" of its entry into government, a deal should be possible. It should not need the unconvincing threat of fire and brimstone to achieve it.