Leading Article: A lame Major can still give peace a chance

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The bombers are back on both sides of the sectarian divide in Northern Ireland. On Friday night, a gunman attempted to murder a Unionist politician as he visited his sick son in a Belfast children's hospital. It was the work of the IRA. Yesterday came the response: a bomb exploded under the car of a leading republican - the work of loyalist paramilitaries.

It sounds so familiar, so wearisome, so inevitable; armed extremists lobbing hatred at each other all over again. But what happened this weekend wasn't inevitable - nor need Northern Ireland be poised on the brink of an endless escalation of violence and vitriol. If the paramilitaries and politicians - including our own Prime Minister - can raise their game and exhibit a little more political maturity and understanding than many of them have hitherto shown, then peace may still be possible.

The ceasefire by IRA and loyalist terrorists two years ago heralded a unique opportunity to pursue peace through negotiation rather than the barrel of a gun. And while the terrorists themselves have to take ultimate responsibility for the absence of peace, the British government failed to fully seize the chance for peace.

For once, Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA, was ready to promote its cause through peaceful negotiations. On the other side, the political representatives of the loyalist paramilitaries turned out - surprisingly - to be ready to talk peace as well. The IRA ceasefire was left in ruins after the bombing of Canary Wharf and Manchester. But the loyalists still refrained from retaliation - until yesterday.

Even with a ceasefire, sustaining peace was never going to be easy; different sides among the terrorists, the public and the politicians still held passionate and incompatible views about the future of the province. Nevertheless, the prospects for channelling those disagreements into peaceful political negotiation were probably the best for a generation.

Given such a historic backdrop John Major's performance was lame. He moved too slowly and as his majority shrank he pandered to the unionists and hardliners within his own party. Delay, prevarication and further delay characterised the British government's political strategy. Whether it be the permanence of peace, the decommissioning of weapons or the charade of pre-talks elections, hurdle after hurdle was thrown up for Sinn Fein to jump before talks could begin. The British government failed to acknowledge the fragility of the ceasefire, and of the line Sinn Fein was trying to hold with impatient IRA activists.

Delaying talks was an even more dangerous strategy, given the time limits on the Government's freedom to manoeuvre. Realising that the Government majority was dwindling fast, the Prime Minister should have acted before he became too dependent on David Trimble's Ulster Unionists.

The Unionists can count even less to their credit in the missed opportunity for peace. Both Paisley and Trimble have chosen to use their power in Parliament to pursue their narrow short-term political interests: sabotaging inclusive talks. The Unionists, it seems, are so stubbornly opposed to any change, or to dialogue with those they disagree with, that they are prepared to sacrifice the chance of Northern Irish peace. They believe they can bounce the British government into backing their intransigence.

But the game isn't over yet. Northern Ireland has not yet succumbed to widespread terror on the scale seen in the past. Just because the current British government was too slow to act at the beginning, and now has its hands tied by the Unionists, doesn't mean that a new government won't take the initiative after an election. So long as the next prime minister - of whatever party - has a big enough majority not to depend on back- room bargains, a new government could throw its weight into talks.

But if progress is to be made after a British general election, all sides have to make an effort not to rule anything out in the next few months. If violence erupts on a huge scale in the New Year, there may be nothing left of the peace process for a new government to retrieve. The paramilitaries and their backers should have the sense to realise that escalating the violence now would not be in the interests of the people they claim to represent. All they can hope to do now is play a holding game until the election, and position themselves for political action immediately afterwards.

But John Major has a responsibility to avoid damaging the peace process, too. Expecting him to ignore his problems in Westminster for the sake of Northern Ireland is sadly unrealistic. The people of Northern Ireland will be frustrated that their security is playing second fiddle to British politics again, but nothing can change that. All we can hope for is that Mr Major will not escalate the tension - as he has done on several occasions in the past few months. It wasn't necessary to stamp so hard on the Adams-Hume initiative for a new ceasefire last month. Nor, during last week's visit to the province, did he have to make such a point of criticising the Sinn Fein president while talking of Trimble's "vigorous" advocacy. This kind of talk cuts the ground from under the feet of any would-be Sinn Fein doves. Now if the IRA returns to its callous butchery, what chance will David Ervine, for all his impressive behaviour so far, have to restrain the loyalist paramilitaries he represents?

John Major should reflect on his position. The Unionists are unlikely to be able to do much for him for very long. And by accommodating them he risks losing something much more important: peace in Northern Ireland.

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