This pause in the peace process is dangerous - but it need not prove fatal

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The world, it seems, can bear only so much peace-making at once. As the new US Secretary of State heads to the Middle East to breathe new life into that peace process after the US and Palestinian elections, the drive for a lasting settlement in Northern Ireland has suddenly, and spectacularly, fallen apart.

Just two months ago, Tony Blair and the Irish Prime Minister, Bertie Ahern, believed that they were on the threshold of an agreement that would have permitted the two life-long adversaries, Rev Ian Paisley at the head of the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein's Gerry Adams, to enter government together. Then, at the eleventh hour, the negotiations in which so much hope had been invested broke down on the old, old issue of decommissioning. Sinn Fein had offered to place its weapons stocks beyond use, with two clergymen - one Catholic, one Protestant - present as witnesses. The DUP insisted on photographs. Slim as it might appear to outsiders, the gap proved unbridgeable.

From that point, the slide into deadlock was swift. The multimillion-pound bank robbery in December left little prospect that talks would be restarted. But the door was finally slammed shut early in January, when Mr Ahern not only endorsed London's view that the IRA was to blame for the robbery, but suggested that senior Republicans had been aware of the plan, even as they were negotiating terms for entering government. This week's statement by the IRA that it was "withdrawing" its offer to disarm was a logical response to what it regarded as an accusation of bad faith.

No one - not Mr Paisley, not Mr Adams, not Mr Blair and not Mr Ahern - can now pretend or hope that talks will resume any time soon. And in some ways, a cooling-off period that will allow everyone to review how much is at stake may be no bad thing. A stable "cold" peace of the sort that currently exists is far from the worst possible interim solution.

So far as the DUP and its supporters are concerned, there is little chance of any new discussions with Sinn Fein until the whys and wherefores of the December bank robbery have been clarified. The British and Irish governments would no doubt also like answers. The circulation of so many rumours and contradictory theories about the robbery and its purpose is evidence that no single theory has yet been verified. The standard question in such circumstances - in whose interest was a raid which was bound to destroy trust on both sides - has as yet no answer. For there is no obvious political beneficiary; only losers. This may be one reason why Sinn Fein leaders and the IRA have been so furious to have the finger pointed at them.

Beneficial though a pause for reflection may be, however, it also has the potential to be dangerous. Both Mr Paisley and Downing Street have gone out of their way to dismiss the IRA's statement and the withdrawal of its offer on decommissioning as a fit of temper rather than anything longer lasting. The chief constable of Northern Ireland, too, assumed an air of calm, stating confidently that although the IRA had the "capacity" to relaunch a campaign of violence, that was not their intent. He is probably in a better position than most to know, but we hope he is right.

From the British perspective, an absence of talks may be a more sensible course for a government facing a general election than on-off talks that could fail again at any moment amid bitter recriminations all round. It is surely also true that, almost seven years after the Good Friday agreement, the people of Northern Ireland would resent any return to armed conflict and punish the party deemed to have started it at the ballot-box. Hence, perhaps, the IRA's preference for common criminality, albeit on the grand scale, over bombs. The reality is, though, that while Northern Ireland may be a very different place now from the one it was a decade ago, it has clearly not changed to the extent that two such entrenched enemies are quite ready to share political power.

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