Leading Article: Impatient for peace

IT IS FAR too early to hand out prizes for good political behaviour in Northern Ireland. This is a crucial moment in the peace process, and it could still be broken by the steady drip of sectarian murder, or by a single great explosion in the heart of an English city. But it is not too early to give encouragement to a small group of British politicians who have brought a settlement closer than at any time since partition in 1922. In the proper spirit of pluralism, we start with John Major, for breaking with the Conservative Party's traditional unionism by making it clear that the UK has no selfish strategic or economic interest in staying in Northern Ireland. Tony Blair and Mo Mowlam - an accessible and tireless politician who has proved an inspired appointment - have taken risks and broken rules, by waiving the requirement that the IRA should decommission its arms before Sinn Fein joined the talks; by agreeing that Dr Mowlam should talk face-to-face with loyalist prisoners in the Maze; and by receiving Gerry Adams at Downing Street. Last week the Prime Minister attacked another taboo by agreeing to a judicial inquiry into Bloody Sunday in Londonderry. Most unionists will see no reason to re- examine an episode that left such deep scars on community relations. But that is the point. The myths, as well as the realities, of what happened on that terrible day have been bound up inextricably with the events in the next quarter of a century. It will be hard to disinter the truth. Uncertainty will never be dispelled. But the inquiry cannot fail to unravel some real truths from the propaganda from each side. Objective facts are seldom more dangerous than myths.

The urgency the Government feels about the peace process justifies all these breaches of the copybook of Direct Rule. We admire Mr Blair's impatience for a settlement within months, not years. He understands the infinite capacity of the negotiating process to prolong itself. May is the deadline, so the next four months present an exceptional challenge - for the circumstances may not be repeated for a long time. And the challenge requires exceptional methods. In that spirit, we would urge the prompt return to the negotiating table of the UDP, despite its paramilitary links. If they are to be part of the settlement, they ought to be present at the talks. They are not the only people present with blood on their hands.

There is only one broad pattern of settlement under discussion: an internal assembly, cross-border institutions dealing with issues of common interest, and something like a Council of the Isles to guarantee that new arrangements are fair to both traditions. There is plenty of room for disagreement here, but unionists ought to bear in mind the Dublin government's readiness to ask the people of the Republic to renounce the constitutional claim to sovereignty over the North, and to accept the principle that the consent of a majority of Ulster men and women will be the prerequisite for any change in their status. David Trimble has shown courage by remaining in the talks despite the extremist opposition of Ian Paisley. He may contemplate becoming the First Minister of a less violent and more harmonious Northern Ireland which would remain within the UK, for the duration of his lifetime at least. Sinn Fein ought to recognise the logic of its own search for a political instead of a military solution. Twenty-five years of war have brought a United Ireland not a jot closer. Moreover, the chance of a settlement favourable to the nationalists has never been better. The parties in power in London, Dublin and Washington DC, have been traditionally in sympathy with their cause, but they will have to give as well as take. The Prime Minister may be impatient for success, but he harbours no romantic notions about the IRA. Republicans are still a minority within a minority in Northern Ireland, and while they may be able to kid a few gullible Congressmen in Washington that, like the PLO or the ANC, they speak for a disenfranchised majority in an oppressive regime, they cannot kid the British people. None the less, we think the Prime Minister is right to make the assumption that all the parties to the talks, including the loyalist paramilitaries and Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, are working towards a settlement. But that assumption can be sustained only if it brings results. The window of opportunity is open, but Tony Blair is capable of closing again in the early summer. Were that to happen, Northern Ireland may have to be left to its own devices.