LEADING ARTICLE : A referendum for peace

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We must do all we can to prevent the IRA driving us into a cycle of pessimism about peace in Northern Ireland. It is supremely arrogant for Gerry Adams to declare the peace process over. Mr Adams does not have the right to certify its demise. Nevertheless, the Sinn Fein president's statement will confirm the fears of many that the IRA is determined to carry on its campaign of violence, at least in the short term, and wreck the peace process.

Whatever influence Mr Adams has over the Provisionals - and he seems to grow smaller in stature by the day - the chances of a quick resumption of the ceasefire look slim. Sunday night's bomb on a London bus confirmed the IRA's willingness to attack civilians throughout Britain. We must expect further attacks to follow, perhaps in Northern Ireland itself.

As the IRA's strategy unfolds, it is easy to feel gloomy. If the IRA has really given up on peace, then proposals being considered in Downing Street, to establish a date for all-party talks after elections, may have come too late to have much impact. There may be little that London or Dublin can do in the short run to halt the violence without appearing to concede to it.

This conclusion could, in turn, produce a sense of hopelessness. All the effort to make political progress was premised on there being peace. If there is to be no peace, pessimists say, there is little chance that a fresh round of political talks will be any more fruitful than those that have collapsed again and again during the past 25 years.

The answer to such pessimism is that much can still be achieved even while the IRA carries on its campaign. Democratic change involving the lives of millions of people cannot be allowed to wait for a few hundred paramilitaries to lay down their weapons. Politicians on all sides must attempt to build on what has been achieved in the past months, to make sure that endures the IRA's return to violence.

Peace has shifted public opinion, softened old enmities, broken down divisions between communities. The desire to press on with these changes has been demonstrated over the past 10 days with peace rallies in Northern Ireland calling for peace.

There is a real need now to give these feelings firm political expression, for politicians to appeal over the heads of the paramilitaries. John Hume's proposal of a referendum, simultaneously held in Northern Ireland and the Republic, would be one way to achieve this goal. The first question would ask voters whether they disapproved of violence for any purpose. The second would ask them whether they wanted to see all parties start talks.

Both questions would almost certainly produce a "yes" verdict by a large majority. It would force all Northern Ireland's politicians to recognise that an absence of peace does not excuse them from compromise. Such a verdict would serve as a reminder to the IRA that it will not achieve its goals through violence.

More important, a quick referendum would maintain the momentum of a political process which could easily perish along with the ceasefire. Unless the democratic process in Northern Ireland grows vigorous, unless the IRA can see that its own supporters regard the conference chamber as the place to achieve political change, there can be little hope that it will again decide to lay down its arms.