Leading article: Hope on the brink of ruin

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FROM TIME to time British politicians must get the overwhelming urge to tow Northern Ireland out into the middle of the Atlantic and sink it. Tony Blair could be excused for feeling something like that this weekend. Yet he should remember how, thanks largely to his efforts, the distance between the two sides - and therefore all that separates Northern Ireland from a permanent peace - has boiled down merely to a question of "who goes first?". There is still all to play for. And the shift in tone among Ulster's politicians in the days after the breakdown of the agreement shows they know it.

Thursday's meeting of the Northern Ireland Assembly had to be abandoned because David Trimble's Unionists failed even to turn up. Their empty seats, seen on television the world over, were a classic public relations own goal - and yet it is easy to see how they stumbled into it. The Unionists were not convinced that Blair's latest proposals would guarantee the start of the disarming of the IRA. Gerry Adams's Sinn Fein representatives were present, ready to take their seats on the new Northern Ireland executive - but they could give no guarantees about IRA decommissioning either. Trimble insists that the IRA and Sinn Fein are one and the same. Not being able to give guarantees sounded to him more like not being willing to give guarantees. In other words, IRA-Sinn Fein were trying to keep open the option of returning to bombs and guns: if they did not get their way in government, violence could be turned on, like a tap, until they did. On the other side, Adams never tires of saying that republicans are now committed to peaceful means only. He was willing to try to persuade the IRA to decommission but could not be blamed if he failed - and therefore should not be excluded. But the Unionists' insistence on exclusion showed, he said, that they were not serious about power-sharing. What Adams and Trimble have in common is an overwhelming conviction of their own reasonableness and of the slippery perfidiousness of their opponents.

The truth probably lies in between. Adams may be right that getting all the IRA to decommission means showing that the Good Friday Agreement has started delivering the political goods it promised. That means launching the executive soon. Trimble may be right that the IRA has not yet finally and absolutely decided there is no longer any need for its weapons. That means not launching the executive yet. To go in at this stage might even have undermined his position in his party. So neither the Unionists nor Sinn Fein were willing to go first. Each needed the other to take that crucial initial step.

Despite the lack of trust, this must be a bridgeable gap. The impressive thing in Northern Ireland since the breakdown has been the way that its politicians have pulled back from the brink. Trimble has adopted a tone of studied moderation; Adams has spoken with gravity but without overstatement. And even if the Conservatives in the House of Commons seemed bent on point- scoring, their former leader, John Major, has come forward with some statesmanlike and insightful suggestions.

It is important to consolidate what has been gained these last two years, not tear it to the ground. As Mo Mowlam said in the Commons last week, there is now a vast consensus between all the parties on the need for an inclusive government that both communities can regard as their own, based on the principles of justice and mutual respect. The Republic's claim to the whole of Ireland has been laid to one side. The principle of "consent" - no united Ireland unless the North agrees to it - is now entrenched. Adams may not think so, but a majority of Unionists are prepared to see power shared - even, under certain conditions, shared with republicans. Sinn Fein repeatedly declares that the time has come to take the gun out of Irish politics. That is now the agreed objective. The question is not whether, but when and how. Ten years ago, even five years ago, that question would have seemed impossibly far off. There will always be one more difficulty ahead, but look how many there are behind.