Leading article: A bright new day in Ireland

THERE were times when it looked as if it might not happen. Could Ulster's Protestants really set aside their doubts and say "Yes"? They harboured many legitimate fears about the future, and these were ruthlessly exploited by Ian Paisley and his gang. But 71.12 per cent is full-hearted support for the Stormont Agreement, and it demonstrates what we should have believed all along - that a large majority of the people of Ireland have shared a desire for peace for some time, and that they would be brave enough to seize the best chance for it they've had for more than three decades. The political significance of this vote is hard to overstate. The peace process has regained its momentum - its Big Mo as they say in the United States. Good for Mo.

The vision, energy and commitment of Tony Blair have been a blessing. Through the months of talks and the weeks of campaigning he has persistently demonstrated an unreasonable amount of optimism and an unusual amount of skill. His only stumble was the temporary release of the Balcombe Street gang and other terrorists. It was so sickening to hear them compared with Nelson Mandela that it gave the opponents of peace their only real break. Mr Blair's lapse of concentration was made up in the subsequent and important assurance that no terrorist would be released unless he renounced violence for good. A good deal of faith has been invested in that promise.

David Trimble has earned himself a place in the history of Ireland. As the leader of mainstream Unionism Mr Trimble could easily have followed precedent and said that Ulster would fight and Ulster would be right. The "Yes" majority is a vindication of his courageous leadership. He will not be alone in noticing that last Friday Ulster also said an emphatic "No" to Paisleyism. The "big man" should spend more time in future reading his Bible.

Northern Ireland's politicians now have the clearest possible mandate to continue working together. This means that the new Assembly must be given a chance to function. The greatest risk of breakdown lies in the role that will be played by Gerry Adams and his colleagues in the government of Northern Ireland. With or without a pact with the SDLP, Sinn Fein are likely to have sufficient support to have a claim on one or two places in the new executive. But unless there are further moves towards IRA decommissioning they must know that the Unionists cannot tolerate this. As the Prime Minister said, there can be no fudge between democracy and terror. The time for the IRA first moves on decommissioning is now - to guarantee a sustainable peace by showing that the days of the gun in Irish politics are over.

Whether Sinn Fein join the executive or not, Mr Trimble will surely be appointed First Minister, with John Hume as a powerful deputy. The leaders of various other parties will join them. This is a grand coalition, and is typical of a period of great political transition. Such a coalition demonstrates how politicians accustomed to war-war can begin to jaw-jaw. Today, power sharing is the only practical politics for Northern Ireland. But this cannot be a permanent arrangement. Although the assembly will have to live with the constant threat of boycott on the part of the Paisleyites, opposition to the new executive is likely to be marginal and ineffective. But there is little point in having democratic arrangements if the possibility of change - one of the vital facets of democracy - is not on the agenda.

In the years ahead, the politicians' task in Northern Ireland is to build on the fragile consensus that now exists on the very constitutional issues that have defined politics in the province since partition. If the border issue is to be laid to rest at last, then the distortions of sectarianism may yet be exorcised from Irish politics. The natural forms and tensions of politics in Western societies, of left and right, progressive and conservative, have hardly taken root in Northern Ireland since the French revolution. If sectarianism is to wither away, the process will inevitably be gradual, but it is the promise for the future. In the Republic vestigial differences in attitude between Fianna Fail and Fine Gael are largely historical curiosities. Peace will have finally come to Northern Ireland when the same thing happens there.

It is far too early to see what form a new party structure might take, but it is not too soon to hope that politicians there might begin to think a few more steps ahead. They were granted every encouragement they needed to do so in last Friday's vote. We should now witness the beginning of a new politics for Ireland.