LEADING ARTICLE: Adams may be our last hope

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The Independent Online
This is not a moment to despair about Northern Ireland. The Middle East peace process was dogged by several outrages, but was not derailed. Likewise, the Bosnian settlement has been difficult. Friday night's bombing in London was a vicious, brutal act. The attack has created a serious obstacle to progress. But it is not insurmountable. Politicians must now demonstrate leadership and show that the political process is not dead.

The key figure is Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein president. He persuaded the IRA in the first place to abandon its military campaign and it is up to him to secure a fresh ceasefire.Views on Mr Adams differ. Some see him as an integral part of IRA strategy-making, others as committed to peace. Whichever is true, he is the only public figure who can deliver the IRA.

However, the odds seem to be stacked against him. It is now generally accepted that he did not know about plans to plant the bomb. In short, a man who once had a great deal of influence over the Provisionals may have become a marginal figure in their decision-making.

It may, in any case, be difficult to develop an argument that would convince the IRA to lay down its weapons. The bombing was an attack on democracy, an atavistic, destructive scream by the IRA at its inability to get its own way. It amounted to a declaration that peaceful politics was a waste of time. Mr Adams must confront this with evidence that democracy can work, that it can deliver, as he argued 17 months ago, more of the republican agenda than can killing and maiming. Assuming Mr Adams is committed to peace, this will be a difficult task. Progress has been slow these past few months and the IRA is a body whose authoritarian, militarist history makes it deeply resistant to democracy.

But if Mr Adams is brave and sticks with the cause of peace, he has considerable resources to call upon. The population of Northern Ireland - even extreme republicans - is sick of violence. Young people have known peace for the first time in their lives and like the taste of it. They have seen the political process begin to work, albeit in a shuddering manner. There have been endless delays - the posturing of aged politicians, wedded to positions fixed decades ago, has continued. But there have been the first signs of flexibility in Ulster politics.

It is also up to other politicians to create a framework in which Sinn Fein can demonstrate the benefits of peace. This does not mean going soft on Sinn Fein. It entails other parties, including the Unionists, sketching a more ambitious vision of what can be achieved to counteract the IRA's conclusion that the process is moribund. It is not good enough for others to declare the peace process dead and retreat into mutual recrimination.

The current fragile situation demands an imaginative approach. John Major should reconsider his hasty rejection last week of an Irish government proposal for initial "Dayton-style" talks, with all parties present, but in adjoining rooms. A fresh look should be taken at the still-born Mitchell Commission report which set out realistic conditions for allowing Sinn Fein into comprehensive constitutional discussions. Whatever route is taken, a firm deadline should be set for bringing all parties opposed to violence into full talks.

Both governments must also be realistic about the scope Mr Adams enjoys to condemn the IRA in public. If he did so, he would probably alienate the military leadership, forfeit his own influence upon it and put his own life at risk.

Mr Adams may be faced in the coming months with a difficult choice: whether to distance himself from an IRA campaign and bring a section of republican opinion, formerly supportive of violence, over to peaceful methods. Such a move, splintering republicanism, is anathema to Mr Adams, who has always sworn that he would keep his movement together.

In the many decisions he may face, he must be encouraged to take the way of peace. There may be a time ahead when we should give up on Mr Adams. But now is a moment to watch him closely and support him where necessary. Gerry Adams may be the last hope this century of securing peace in Northern Ireland.