Our first and natural reaction to the murders of Damien Trainor and Philip Allen last week is a feeling of despair. Their violent and pointless deaths seem to signify all that is most dispiriting about the search for a settlement in Northern Ireland. What sense can there be in continuing talks about peace when we have before our eyes such a terrible demonstration of conflict?
The answer is that there is very good sense. The murders come at the exact time when the parties to the peace process must redouble their efforts. The way to a settlement was never going to be free of violence. The train of killings resumed at Christmas with the murder of Billy Wright in the Maze is a last, desperate throw by those forces that do not wish to see the peace process succeed.
They may, of course, yet go to even greater lengths to subvert it. But with each new outbreak of violence, the will of the broad majority of people in both Republican and Loyalist communities for a settlement is strengthened. The murderers of Poyntzpass have committed a strategic error as well as a horrendous crime. As the priest who conducted the funeral of the two young men pointed out, the terrorists have exhibited their fear of Damiens and Philips all over Northern Ireland and their aversion to a future in which people of different communities integrate freely with one another.
Revulsion at the random killing of the two men whose friendship was a simple testimony to coexistence has served to help people on either side of the divide break away from the ingrained, knee-jerk response to sectarian killings - namely that however horrible a murder is, it can be viewed as a response to some equal and opposite atrocity on the other side.
The only message that the assassins of Co Armagh succeeded in sending was that they would oppose any attempt to bring Catholics and Protestants together. It is they, and they alone, who prefer strife to peace. Whatever their political or religious allegiances may be, that is not a view shared by the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland.
With the same aim of destabilising the peace process as it approaches its denouement, if not the same methods, elements in the Ulster Unionist Party are said to be searching for a stalking horse in order to undermine their leader David Trimble. Any such move would be a grave mistake. Mr Trimble has skilfully kept the Unionists at the negotiating table through some stiff challenges - Sinn Fein's admission to negotiations without decommissioning, then through the aftermath of the Wright murder. He has been a tough defender of his cause and also an imaginative one. Standing shoulder to shoulder with the SDLP deputy leader Seamus Mallon after the Armagh killings was a brave symbol of cross-community solidarity. To discard Mr Trimble now would send a signal to Dublin that unionism prefers to be mired in the hopeless battles of the past than embrace the compromises which offer a constructive way forward.
The Heads of Agreement document drawn up by Tony Blair and the Irish premier, Bertie Ahern, in January widened the scope for a settlement between the constitutional parties. Mr Trimble's proposal of a Council of the Isles accommodates the unionists. The proposed cross-border consultative committee offers a reward to the nationalists. The proposals give the unionists the Ulster assembly that they have desired for so long.
The best chance of success lies in the recognition inherent in the Heads of Agreement document that a settlement can be based only on the consent of the parties and not on coercion. With a firm timetable in place for referendums on these recommendations in June, the outline of an accord has become clear. That is why extremists on both sides are so keen to
derail the process before it gathers more momentum. This is the time for all parties in the process to hold their nerve and keep talking, whatever the provocations to the contrary. The prize is peace. There is nothing more important.