Leading Article: Ireland: Major's finest hour

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The peace that came to Northern Ireland a year and a half ago will endure as one of John Major's finest achievements. The "peace process" may exist in name only, but that it existed at all is in large part due to Mr Major.

In pursuit of the peace he displayed some of his most admirable qualities. For a while it seemed as if Majorite common sense would triumph over the decades of sectarian hatred. He set out through the Downing Street declaration with Albert Reynolds, the then Irish premier, to create the basis for a settlement in Ireland. He articulated some widely accepted but rarely spoken truths: Britain does not have a strategic self-interest in Northern Ireland; the war with terrorism would never be won by either side. Most strikingly, his government admitted that to bring peace it needed to pave the way for talks with the enemy: the IRA.

Once Mr Major had accepted the case for a peace initiative, after initial scepticism, he took the opportunity with an impressive confidence. On this issue he showed his capacity to rise above the petty politics of Westminster and his increasingly forlorn struggle to keep his fractious party in one piece to represent the wider national interest. This approach won him cross-party support and widespread admiration.

The British government may have made mistakes in its handling of the process. By not committing itself earlier to a date for all-party talks, it made it more difficult to maintain its momentum. First it demanded the IRA commit to a permanent cessation of violence. That demand was subsequently shelved with a diplomatic form of words. Then it got hung up on a demand that arms should be decommissioned before talks could start. Finally, its out-of-hand rejection of the Mitchell Commission proposals to get all-party talks started, and its insistence on elections in Northern Ireland, undoubtedly strengthened the impression of a government in hock to the Unionists and hastened the end of the IRA's ceasefire.

Yet others, too, must shoulder their responsibilities, which are at least as weighty as Mr Major's. The Mitchell Commission proposals would have required the IRA to give up its goal of a completely united Ireland. That would have been a difficult pill to swallow. There was during this period an important change of government in Dublin, with the wily nationalist Mr Reynolds replaced by John Bruton. That, too, will have strongly influenced the IRA's assessment of the situation. The US government's involvement has been impossible to separate from the political self-interest of the presidental election cycle. And, most importantly, we must remember it was the IRA, to the apparent surprise of its own political leadership, that chose to end its ceasefire. Gerry Adams clearly was not in a position to judge accurately how his own hard men were thinking. It is a bit much to suggest Mr Major should have done a better job.

His initial reaction to the Docklands bombing was admirably statesmanlike and considered. Even now he presses on, devoting a lot of energy and time to a subject which will move precious few votes when the election comes and despite calls from his own right wing for a get-tough policy. Starting the peace process was Mr Major's finest moment. History will judge it a great gamble, worth taking, that has not paid off.