Start talking and never stop

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Making peace requires many things. Among them is the ability to believe constantly that the other side may have had a change of heart - that, despite past evasions, false dawns and disappointments, this time they might really mean it.

This morning, that is the act of faith required by everyone involved in the Northern Irish peace process. The previous ceasefire was not, as some wiseacres have it, a failure. It lasted 17 good months, during which many people who would otherwise have been maimed or murdered lived unharmed lives. Now, though, Northern Ireland has a new chance for the big prize; not a ceasefire or an armistice, but peace.

The big question, however, is: how should Tony Blair, Mo Mowlam and the Dublin administration play it? What have they learned from the failure of the first round of peace-making during the Major and Bruton administrations? They have certainly learned that momentum is all, and that losing it is dangerous.

This is not a matter of good faith now or bad faith before. John Major's personal commitment to a settlement was at least as strong as Mr Blair's. But he was of course in a wholly different political position - weak in the Commons; nearing the end of his time at the top, not just beginning it; and surrounded by Unionist ultras in his own party. The present Prime Minister's position is, by contrast, awesomely powerful. The parties know they must deal through him, or return to the nightmare.

It is clear enough that he intends to use that strength to hustle anyone who has shown a scrap of good faith back into the talks. From his earliest days in power, Mr Blair has addressed Sinn Fein publicly and privately, pretty bluntly: show me you want peace, and that you are not merely the chattering wing of the Provisional IRA - and I'll help get you into the talks.

This morning, the right answer seems to be coming. Other obstacles, notably prior decommissioning, have been shoved to one side. Now all the parties must be cajoled round the table as quickly as possible - and Mr Blair must tie their leaders to the table-legs. He must be very tough with anyone who shows signs of arriving only to indulge in a quick harangue, a slammed door and a self-justifying whine for the cameras.

But the biggest challenge this morning is for David Trimble, the intelligent Ulster Unionist leader. He must surely recognise that his people have far more to lose if he refuses to talk than if he starts talking. If the republicans are sincere, then the pro-cess of decommissioning will eventually start.

Call their bluff, in other words, and have the bigness to cheer if it isn't a bluff. If this is a piece of tactical posturing, a prelude to more violence, then Sinn Fein will eventually stagger from the talks utterly discredited and the democrats will be stronger. ``There is nothing to fear but fear itself.'' For once, on this very fine morning, the cliche is the key.