ANOTHER VIEW; Building an Irish peace

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The Independent Online
Memories of the Blitz returned to me when the IRA bombed Coleraine. The centre of the town was still on fire when I stood in the ruins a few hours later. That was on 13 November 1992. After that, it was the turn of Portadown, Newtownards, the Shankill Road and many others. From the loyalist side, random slaughter came to the Rising Sun Bar in Greysteel on 30 October 1993, and to the Heights Bar in Loughinisland on 18 June 1994. Hours later again I witnessed the results, congealed pools of blood still on the floor. I could, of course, give many other examples of such terrorism from both sides. Quite a few people thought no end would ever come.

But for a year now it has stopped. It has not been peace: the IRA has not gone away, as Mr Adams has just reminded everyone. Beatings and banishments have proliferated, in punishment for offending the terrorists. Nevertheless there has been a vast sense of relief. There is a determination, 12 months on, right across Northern Ireland, that this hideous violence shall not return.

How should we build upon this? By keeping always before us, I suggest, our end objective. There has to be a political settlement of this ancient conflict. It cannot be imposed; it has to come by consent, from the minds and hearts of the people, and therefore through talking.

So great is the relief that it is tempting to rush the fences. But careful analysis and thought are needed. The talking must be done by people whose authority and influence come exclusively from having been freely chosen by others to represent them. Let but one participant at the negotiating table be associated with a gun on the table, under the table, or outside the door - to quote John Hume - and all the others will be threatened. The purpose could only be to intimidate the others into a more favourable stance than would otherwise be attainable.

That is not democracy. Accordingly there would be many empty chairs, and this fragile political process would have been killed.

We are not seeking anyone's surrender, any more than sensible people are looking for anyone's victory. The language of warfare does not serve us here. What we are looking for, with the Irish government, is a principled and practical means of getting all parties together, so that trust and familiarity can be built up as an antidote to the poison of hatred and prejudice.

So far, our own government's dramatic, prompt and varied responses to the ceasefires have been matched by no similar flexibility, no movement from Sinn Fein. They speak of there being no precedent for giving up any arms in Ireland. Not much sign there of the new thinking they enjoin on everyone else.

But many an intractable obstacle has been overcome in the recent past, when all around were prophesying doom; and overcome by imaginative means that were nonetheless principled. Today, the 366th since the IRA's ceasefire, our commitment and determination are undimmed. Immense changes for the better have been secured, and the best is yet to come.

The author is Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.