The pessimists have been confounded

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In Northern Ireland this week, as in the past 52 weeks, no child has stood crying over the body of a murdered parent. No Welsh mother has received news of the death of her soldier son in an ambush in Tyrone. No grieving sisters have followed tricolour draped coffins to republican plots in hillside cemeteries. Only the bereaved can know what peace has spared the rest of us.

And it has been a remarkable peace. In news from other places, we have become wearily accustomed to the way that the one word "ceasefire" is always followed by three others: "has broken down". But not in Northern Ireland. With extraordinary discipline it has been rigorously upheld. The pessimists have been confounded.

Gradually we have witnessed the rebirth of normality; the ability to enjoy the natural tedium of playing with the children, walking in the park and shopping in town. Coalisland, Newry, Warrenpoint and Enniskillen have reverted to being towns where people live and work, not locations where bodies have been found or bombs let off.

Many share the credit for this peace. John Hume, the peace broker; Gerry Adams, the man who argued with the IRA; John Major, who refused to allow his precarious majority to affect his resolve; ordinary Unionists who, despite their past suffering and present doubts, greeted the ceasefire with open minds. On all sides there has been a restraint and a maturity which has allowed this precious 12 months.

Of course, there are still the voices from the shadows; the republican goon squads dispensing summary justice, the loyalist fife and drum addicts, the unreconciled politicians from an earlier age. And they all derive sustenance from the agonising slowness of the peace process itself. They await its failure.

They must not be given the pleasure - and not just for the sake of people in these islands. Men and women in Northern Ireland are testing a proposition that is being allowed bloodily to fail elsewhere in Europe: that similar people with different traditions and religions can find a way to live together.

With each day that passes they assume the stature of shapers of their own future, rather than victims of their own past. And in so doing they point the way for others.