Leading Article: A ceasefire at midnight

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FOR THE HUNDREDS murdered by the IRA in the past 25 years, the midnight ceasefire has come too late. Those bereaved can only hope that, if a peace is now forged, it will not dishonour their dead. It is regrettable that the IRA stopped short of declaring a permanent end to its campaign and London is right to press for a commitment to this effect. But the IRA's behaviour in the coming months should and presumably will count for more than the semantics of the declaration. Certainly, no such reservation can diminish our joy and relief that the most violent and intractable episode in Britain's post-war history may at last be drawing to a close.

That said, many will be mystified that the IRA should have chosen this moment to lay down its arms. Have the terrorists, as Unionists fear, successfully bombed their way to a conference table at which the rights of the Protestant community will be negotiated away? Or are the republican gunmen merely being allowed to accept defeat with dignity?

Neither proposition is true. If there is a winner, it is constitutional nationalism. Over the years, this peaceful coalition of Dublin, the SDLP and Irish America has lowered its expectations. It has offered pragmatic solutions attractive to Britain and much of Ireland, while too much of Unionism has marched towards isolation behind pipe, drum and bitter slogan. The moderation that sidelined the IRA also left Unionism high and dry. Yesterday the IRA moved to join the mainstream.

The present state of affairs has parallels in the late 19th century, when Charles Stewart Parnell won the ear of Gladstone. Britain's prime minister sought to pacify Ireland with nationalist solutions. The influence achieved by Parnell convinced the Fenians, the ineffectual republican paramilitaries of their day, to lay down their arms.

Then as now, the rights of the Protestant community were a vital issue. Eventually they were met with the creation of Northern Ireland, where Protestants enjoyed a hegemony, undermined eventually by the injustices inflicted upon the minority Catholic community. If Northern Ireland's violent history offers a lesson, it is that peace cannot be achieved when one community feels it has lost.

One aspect of the IRA's ceasefire ought to reassure Protestants, namely the recognition by terrorists that the United Kingdom cannot be dismembered by violence. Equally, however, 25 years of conflict have brought a change of thinking at Westminster. Whether violence delayed or propelled that shift will long be a matter of debate.

By 1969 the minority Catholic community in Northern Ireland had experienced nearly 50 years of abandonment by Westminster to a corrupt, self-serving Unionist government. It faced an oppressive state, a hostile police force and ethnic violence.

Since then, successive British governments have slowly taken Catholic concerns more seriously. The imposition of direct rule in 1972 was a first step, but was eventually regarded by nationalists as a prop for Unionist power. Power- sharing was introduced, but scrapped in the face of loyalist strikes. Only in 1985, with the the Anglo-Irish agreement, did Britain begin to look like a broker willing to resist Unionist threats. In 1990, tough anti-discrimination legislation was passed. Last December's Downing Street declaration confirmed Britain's commitment to justice for both communities. The Prime Minister deserves high praise for taking this final step which, more than any other, has disarmed the IRA. His cool determination and painstaking negotiating style were critical.

AS BRITISH attitudes have changed, so have those in Ireland. 'United Ireland' nationalism has lost support in favour of creating a fairer Northern Ireland, with an unspecified political role for Dublin. The success of the Anglo-Irish agreement in this regard made the Republic's territorial designs on Northern Ireland all but a dead letter, although it did not lift the shadow of the republic's constitutional claims on the North.

Albert Reynolds, the Irish Prime Minister, leads Fianna Fail, a republican party which itself forsook violence only in 1926. Yet he received a standing ovation from the Dail last December after endorsing the Unionist veto over constitutional change.

The IRA's war of attrition had come to look anachronistic and aimless, sustained only by that organisation's inward-looking mentality and its mythology of blood sacrifice. Sinn Fein, meaning 'ourselves alone', summed up the beleaguered nature of northern republicanism.

Likewise, public sympathy for the Unionist cause has waned. During the Stormont years, British governments overlooked inequities because Unionist rule delivered peace and stability. But leaders in Westminster gradually realised Unionists no longer offered a programme to render Northern Ireland governable. An unwillingness to share power with Catholics has denied the Unionists a proper role in shaping the province's future.

Until 1972 Unionist politicians held the post of prime minister in Northern Ireland. Now James Molyneaux is reduced to taking what advantage he can of the present Government's small majority. Meanwhile, Ian Paisley finds himself touting threats of civil war. Unionists at Westminster would be unwise to press this leverage too hard, against the mood of Parliament and the country at large.

Faced with self-confident nationalism, Unionists fear they are powerless to influence events. Protestants thus cast themselves as Northern Ireland's new victims if they do not participate imaginatively in peaceful political processes and draw up a fresh agenda. Some may be attracted to a violent strategy. The hope must be that the Protestant community's integrity and courage, with its traditional respect for the law, will prevail.

The priority now is to draw Unionists into discussion and convince them that their rights will be respected. The promised peace has been achieved at great cost. It should not be sacrificed because the Protestant community feels itself overwhelmed by historic foes and abandoned by old allies.