Leading Article: Beyond Major's historic gesture

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The Independent Online
JOHN MAJOR seems to have realised that it may be within his power to settle the Northern Ireland question. Just as Gladstone declared that his mission was to pacify Ireland, so the Prime Minister should grasp his historic opportunity. There is a chance to end the violence, from which could flow a genuine political settlement. He cannot afford to throw it away.

Courage requires that Mr Major talks peace, not just politics. Until his speech on Monday to the Lord Mayor's banquet, the Government seemed interested only in restarting inter-party talks in Northern Ireland. These talks have proved fruitless in the past, offer no better prospect now and, on their own, certainly will not stop the killing. The possibility of a permanent IRA cease-fire, canvassed by John Hume, leader of the SDLP, and revived latterly by the Irish government, had been greeted with scepticism in Downing Street.

At Guildhall in London, the heart of the Establishment and close to the scene of the IRA's most damaging bombings, Mr Major made a historic gesture and offered a political option to the men of violence. And he was applauded. There is a burning desire for peace not only, as Mr Major pointed out, in Northern Ireland but throughout Britain. He should be encouraged by this positive reaction.

His task will not be easy. Any hint of a sell-out to the IRA would produce rapid disillusionment among the majority Protestant community in Northern Ireland and an upsurge in loyalist violence. At Westminster, Mr Major must hold together his party. Nor can he afford to alienate Ulster Unionist MPs. The prospect of tight parliamentary votes on VAT increases means that he may need their support.

To deliver peace, Mr Major must appeal to these elements. But he must also be audacious in his message to Sinn Fein. A place at the conference table in exchange for a cessation of violence may not be a big enough gesture to convince the IRA to lay down its arms. The Hume-Adams talks indicate that some recasting of Britain's role in Northern Ireland may be required. This would not mean abandoning the principle of majority consent to any change in Northern Ireland's status. But it might acknowledge that Britain is non-partisan when it comes to a final settlement, provided it has majority support.

The path to peace is uncertain. The real intentions of Sinn Fein remain questionable, and the gulf between all involved is huge. But there is a surge of hope. In the Middle East conflict, the peace process in Norway made rapid progress while the talks remained stalemated in Washington. Old enemies found common ground with remarkable suddenness.

A similar approach could now prove no less effective in Northern Ireland. Mr Major has shown considerable political courage this week in offering his olive branch to Sinn Fein. Skilled negotiator that he is, he must now convince the other main players that this historic opportunity for peace must be grasped.