LEADING ARTICLE : A last, but real, chance for peace

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The Independent Online
The British and Irish governments yesterday breathed fresh life into the Northern Ireland peace process. After months in which the process has seemed paralysed, partly by political complacency, they have agreed a bold plan that offers a genuine opportunity for all parties to enter negotiations which could lead to peace.

The two governments could do little less, given popular demand that the stalemate should be broken. If the democratic middle of Northern Ireland's politics is to be strengthened against extremist calls to violence, then peaceful politicians must show that they can find a way to a lasting settlement. It is to the credit of John Major and his Irish counterpart, John Bruton, that, despite the intense pressures of the last few weeks, and the repeated writing off of the peace process, they have produced a credible, hopeful way forward.

Yesterday's agreement is focused on making life difficult for the IRA, by making it as hard as possible for the terrorist organisation to continue its campaign of bombing and eschew the chance for talks. The IRA has repeatedly called for a date for all-party talks. The summit yesterday has delivered such a date. It is now up to the IRA and its political leaders to respond in kind.

The Anglo-Irish communique sketches a practicable route into talks, assuming that consultations and "high intensity" talks between the parties agree on a formula for elections. For Sinn Fein to be included, the IRA would have to restore its ceasefire. Elections will be held to select negotiators for the various parties, and then talks could begin on 10 June. This is a simple formula with no hidden obstacles to progress.

The more difficult issues that have previously held up talks have been set aside. The decommissioning of weapons will be dealt with, but only after negotiations have begun. At the start of talks all parties will be expected to accept the six democratic principles set out in January by Senator George Mitchell. These include commitments to eventual disarmament of all paramilitary groups, an end to punishment beatings and killings, and, most difficult for Sinn Fein, a commitment that opposition to any new agreement should be confined to peaceful methods.

In great adversity over the past two weeks Mr Major has played his hand with skill, coolness and determination. If Sinn Fein refuses to take this opportunity to win the IRA over to a fresh ceasefire - or the Provisionals reject overtures from Gerry Adams - then we will know that the IRA was never really serious about seeking a peaceful, political end to the conflict.

Yet Sinn Fein is not alone in facing challenges as a result of the communique. Other parties will face hard choices, particularly the Ulster Unionists. Beginning discussions on Monday, they are expected to agree the form of the election and to examine the idea of a referendum to underpin the popular commitment for peace. The political parties must demonstrate, as the two governments did yesterday, that they can settle their apparently arcane differences for the sake of peace. There must be no distraction from the central task to pressurise Sinn Fein and the IRA to abandon violence and commit themselves to peaceful politics. The lesson of the past few weeks is that the best way to exert that pressure is by showing that peaceful politics pays dividends. If this chance is missed, another may not appear again for years to come.