Leading Article: An agreement in search of leaders

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JOHN MAJOR yesterday moved the peace process in Northern Ireland on to its next, and perhaps most difficult, stage. In assuming the IRA's ceasefire is intended to be permanent, he opened the way to multilateral talks. The Prime Minister has put his stamp on the armistice. Let the peace conference begin.

Mr Major did not rush into yesterday's announcement. The security forces concluded weeks ago that the IRA campaign was probably over for good. Albert Reynolds, the Taoiseach, has shaken hands with Gerry Adams, and Al Gore has spoken to the Sinn Fein president. James Molyneaux, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, now has no objection to Sinn Fein joining talks. The loyalist paramilitaries want to sit down with their old adversaries. The predicted Conservative Unionist backlash failed to materialise at the Tory party conference. By yesterday, Mr Major was well placed to quicken the pace and make concessions to nationalists over closed border crossings and the exclusion of Sinn Fein members from Britain.

Talks may yet be held up by lingering doubts about the men of violence. The nationalist side considers the surrender of weapons best discussed as part of a settlement. Mr Major and the Unionists want the paramilitaries to give them up earlier. Yet the shape of a future compromise is emerging: the Prime Minister has introduced a distinction between Semtex explosives and other weapons.

It has been a fine achievement to win general agreement that only peaceful methods are acceptable in settling political differences. But a greater and still elusive prize is to create a consensus around a political settlement.

London and Dublin are already close to finding a centre ground. Both accept the Union based on consent, an Irish dimension in the government of Northern Ireland, some form of power-sharing between the two communities and a Bill of Rights. There are differences: the Republic prefers more pan-Irish institutions than Britain might accept. But the divisions are surmountable.

The problem is that this political centre does not yet exist within Northern Ireland itself. Ulster has yet to discover any Mandela and De Klerk who could forge the kind of relationship upon which a new Northern Ireland might be built. John Hume has recently concentrated on bringing the violent extremes of republicanism in from the cold. Mr Molyneaux has been intent on making sure his community is not sold down the river.

There has been neither time nor opportunity for nationalist and unionist blocs to reach across the divide. Mr Hume, leader of the nationalist SDLP, shows the greatest potential for such imaginative change, although he is well ahead of his party. His efforts are largely responsible for whatever progress has so far been made in Northern Ireland. Mr Molyneaux, a more passive, less innovative politician, is an unknown quantity.

Will the public's desire for a lasting peace force these leaders to find each other in the centre? Will Gerry Adams and the Protestant paramilitaries be able to join them there? It is too early to know. But, at last, the language of consensus is beginning to be heard, sometimes from unlikely quarters. In their ceasefire statement, loyalist commanders said: 'Let us firmly resolve to respect our differing views of freedom, culture and aspiration.'

Mr Major's promise of a referendum on any political agreement that emerges may prove a powerful factor in obliging the various parties to compromise.

This plebiscite assuaged Protestant fears that the Union would be negotiated away without their consent. But it is also a challenge to Northern Ireland's politicians. If they fail to catch the winds of change, they might be marginalised. The people of Northern Ireland might be persuaded to support a settlement that their entrenched representatives rejected, so leaving an outdated political class stranded by its own conservatism.