Leading Article: Giving peace one last chance

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Peace in Northern Ireland seems to be slipping through our fingers. All-party peace talks are due to start on 10 June. Yet without Sinn Fein present they will take place beneath a very large question mark: what is the point? Even in Dublin, apparently the place where enthusiasm for the talks is greatest, the private word in the foreign ministry is that the talks are "not worth a penny candle". Peace will only last in Northern Ireland if it is legitimate and it can only be legitimate if the terrorists and their political sympathisers can be drawn into mainstream politics.

But the chances of Sinn Fein sitting at the negotiating table on 10 June look increasingly slim. The Irish Prime Minister, John Bruton, cut a lonely figure this week with his expressions of "mild optimism" about a possible restoration of the IRA ceasefire before talks begin. Yet as long as the bombers keep bombing, their political counterparts must be excluded from talks.

That the peace process should be so completely scuppered seems outrageous. The population of Northern Ireland are enjoying their respite from violence, however temporary it might turn out to be. Most people want peace and know that the only way to achieve it is to get everyone round a table large enough to have every issue put upon it. So much progress seems to have been made over the past 18 months and surely there should be something more that someone could do to rescue the process before it collapses altogether?

The straightforward answer of course is that the IRA should abandon its violence again. Mr Bruton bases his optimism on "the logic of the situation," arguing that sooner or later the republican movement will realise what an unprecedented opportunity awaits them. If we are lucky, he will be proved right. Unfortunately it seems more likely that Sinn Fein and the IRA do not believe this is an opportunity worth taking. Could it be that with a little more reassurance that the talks are "for real", Sinn Fein might persuade the IRA it was worth reinstating the ceasefire?

This is clearly what the Irish government has been trying in the past few weeks. On Monday, the Irish Foreign Minister, Dick Spring, proposed that the decommissioning of weapons should be discussed in parallel with other negotiations - to stop the entire process being derailed on the first day. Spring's suggestions are worth considering, and the Ulster Unionists - and many Tory MPs - were foolish and irresponsible to denounce them so completely yesterday. It is naive to think that paramilitaries will abandon their weapons before discussing the issues that provoked them to arms in the first place. To insist that agreement on arms is the precursor to further talks is to paralyse the talks altogether.

How should John Major respond to all this? So far, the British Prime Minister has played an admirable role in the peace process. However, while his personal commitment to the Northern Ireland peace process remains unquestioned, his government, his party, and his straitened political circumstances are letting him down.

The biggest problem for Mr Major now is that no matter how fair and balanced he tries to be, the nationalists will always believe he is in hock to the Unionists at Westminster to keep his government afloat. The revival of a peace process that has run so deeply into the sand requires energy, focus and authority; qualities that Mr Major's tired and distracted government lacks.

But holding out for the election of a Labour government or a revival in Mr Major's fortunes will be little consolation to the people of Northern Ireland. So in the meantime, the two governments, politicians and paramilitaries on all sides must not give up the pursuit of peace. The talks on 10 June may be slow going, incomplete and inconclusive - but at least they are talks. While there is still a chance, however slim, Major should attend them. If he decides not to it will surely sound the death-knell for this stage in the peace process.