Leader: A vote for Sinn Fein is a vote for violence

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The people of Ireland have expressed a yearning for a lasting peace settlement and a new democracy. If this challenge is to be translated into reality then we must all respond to it with courage and imagination. Not The Independent's words, but those of Gerry Adams, parliamentary candidate and would-be new democrat. It is easy to condemn the hypocrisy and self- importance of these sentiments, penned by an apologist for terrorism in his autobiography. But condemnation is not enough. It is easy to satirise the "courage and imagination" with which the IRA has prosecuted its pre- election campaign of disruption in England. It has certainly been imaginative, if the courage involved in telephone hoaxing is less apparent. But mockery is not enough. It is all too easy to point out the counter-productive illogic of the IRA-Sinn Fein campaign for a united Ireland. The idea that, by forcing much of the population of London yesterday and great swaths of Britain last week to get on their bikes to go to work, the cause of Irish republicanism is advanced is moonshine.

The people of London were pushed into deep thought about whether the car economy really is sustainable, whether global warming really has changed the weather, whether there is anything that can be done to thwart tactical disruption of British national life by the use of code-words and the occasional real bomb. The one thing they did not think about, except possibly when prompted by journalists and phone-ins and six-year-olds repeatedly asking "Why?", was about the injustice suffered by the nationalist population of Northern Ireland since 1922.

And if they had thought about it, they were hardly likely to exclaim, as they sat in what seemed like city-wide gridlock, "My goodness, that Gerry Adams is quite right, after all." Many people in Great Britain already think the troops should be withdrawn from Northern Ireland and the territory handed to the Irish Republic - but mainly on the basis that it is a tangled mess and should be left to the Irish themselves to sort out. But those who disagree, mainly because a majority in Northern Ireland wants to remain in the United Kingdom, are not going to be swayed by terrorism.

If they were swayed, they might do worse than read Mr Adams's autobiography, which would only have the effect of strengthening their original view. The impassioned call for political leadership all round, a new democracy and "an inclusive process of negotiation" is negated by an unyielding statement of the goal, described as "a settlement between the people of Britain and the people of the island of Ireland, based on respect for our mutual independence", which is only a wordy way of saying "a united Ireland". The book confirms that the plausible Sinn Fein leader, who at the weekend proclaimed "a dream" of a peaceful Ireland, is a spokesman for the men of violence and indeed that he was one of them himself. For, while Londoners, Mancunians and Grand National racegoers might tut with irritation while grudgingly admitting relief that the new IRA strategy has not killed anyone on the mainland (yet), it must be remembered that in Northern Ireland the IRA is still torturing, intimidating and killing. Last month the IRA shot a soldier dead; earlier this month it shot and almost killed a policewoman.

It is, however, not enough to condemn this odious twisting of the language of democracy, in which violence can be justified as a way of seeking a united Ireland, when the people of Northern or Southern Ireland reject the violence and, on these terms, the forced unification too.

Why? Because Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness do represent a community of real people in Northern Ireland. Sinn Fein may represent only 15 per cent of the vote, but the sense of grievance that animates this section of our society is enough to sustain a campaign of terror for decades to come. It has to be recognised that Mr Adams and Mr McGuinness are walking a tightrope, trying to retain their credibility with the dark forces behind them while attempting to deliver something concrete for their constituents.

So, what way forward after the election? In the long term, the right approach must be to make the republican minority feel that its aspirations are taken seriously - however incompatible they are with the aspirations of others. That is the underlying argument for including Sinn Fein in all-party talks. It is an urgent matter: the new government, of whichever party, could face a crisis in Northern Ireland within weeks. The Orange marching season has already begun, with the hot month of July not far away. John Major got stuck on the weapons issue, but there is a case for a new Labour government being bolder. History would not condemn Tony Blair for talking to terrorists who retained their arms in the short term if the outcome were a lasting peace or even, more likely, a succession of temporary cease-fires which might grow into a longer peace. If it did not succeed, what would have been lost?

But before then, the general election itself offers a chance to engage with the republican communities of West Belfast, Mid-Ulster and West Tyrone, the only three constituencies which could elect Sinn Fein MPs. When Sinn Fein polled its record 15.5 per cent in the Forum elections last year, it was widely interpreted as a vote for a new cease-fire and for the channelling of republican demands into the democratic sphere. But if Sinn Fein polls well on Thursday week, it will be interpreted as a vote for violence and for a continuation of the campaign of terror. Let us send a message to the electors in those seats: this time, vote for anyone except Sinn Fein.