LEADING ARTICLE : How about a gesture, Gerry?

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Many people, and not only those who have lost friends and relatives in terrorist attacks, will be concerned at the Government's decision to hold talks with Sinn Fein before the IRA has surrendered a bomb or a gun. To some, particularly among the Protestant community, the decision will smack of weakness.

This anxiety arises from a sense that the Government seems to shift its policy towards the IRA, sometimes from day to day. At first, we were told that Sinn Fein would not be allowed directly to enter talks until the IRA had "decommissioned" a "substantial part" of its hidden arsenal of guns, ammunition and explosives. Then, on Tuesday, Sir Patrick Mayhew hinted at a softening of this position, suggesting that a "willingness in principle" to decommission some arms" would help lead to direct talks. Yesterday, it became clear that exploratory talks can go ahead regardless of progress on the weapons issue.

Yet this outcome will come as no surprise to those who are knowledgeable about Irish history. The pikes, muskets and rifles of previous rebellions are still rusting in their hiding places. British ministers have always known that talks would eventually begin while a large number of weapons were still at large. No group of people who think that they have been involved in a legitimate armed conflict (no matter how repugnant their tactics and arguments to others), is likely to agree to full disarmament before a settlement is reached.

The Government has calculated that the peace process can develop productively without a surrender of arms. They know that even a general decommissioning of weapons would not in itself prevent a further outbreak of violence. Terrorism in Northern Ireland has never required many expensive arms. Even if they were all destroyed, replacements could be all too easily bought or manufactured. Ministers correctly believe their best hope is that each day's experience of peace turns more republican hawks into doves.

But before Sinn Fein congratulates itself on yesterday's news, members should question whether they could not do a great deal more for peace. If Sinn Fein leaders are the born-again statesmen their supporters are claiming, they must surely understand the strength of feeling in the Unionist communities on the weapons issue. It would say more about their democratic evolution than any fine words if Gerry Adams were to urge upon the IRA some kind of unilateral gesture. Were the Gardai to be tipped off about a few arms dumps, or the RUC to stumble over a cache or two, it would help to give ordinary Protestants some of the reassurance that they badly need.