Leading Article: Ireland's impasse

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THE LADY turned last week. Reviewing a biography of Enoch Powell, that great Jeremiah of the Tory party, Margaret Thatcher said he had been right about Northern Ireland and she had been wrong. She should not, she now says, have signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985. But Lady Thatcher's regrets over Ireland are as irrelevant as her views on General Pinochet. The fact is that she did sign the agreement and therefore must take some of the credit for the peace process. That, sadly, is why she now thinks she was wrong. To her, and those who think like her, the peace process is a matter not for credit, but for for blame.

In spite of continued killings, circumstances have changed fundamentally in Ireland since the signing of the Good Friday agreement. There were moments last week, however, when you might have been forgiven for thinking otherwise. An impasse has been reached. The Ulster Unionists are refusing to sit in government with Sinn Fein while the IRA retains its arms. A public rift has occurred between Northern Ireland's First Minister, David Trimble, and his deputy, Seamus Mallon. More than that, the Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams, has warned that, unless there is a decisive and determined approach by the two governments, the Good Friday agreement will collapse.

It would be easy to fall into the disconsolate tones adopted last week by Mr Mallon. But it would be wrong. It would be to ignore what was made clear last week when Tony Blair became the first British prime minister to address both houses of the Irish parliament: that there has been a seismic shift in the political relationship between Britain and Ireland. A new pattern of thinking has emerged which makes the language of Lady Thatcher, and the others who cling to old notions of unionist supremacy or narrow nationalism, seem dead.

The faltering pavane of recent weeks should not disguise how far all the parties to the Northern Ireland peace process have already moved. Sinn Fein has abandoned its endorsement of violence, the Unionists their laager mentality and the Irish government its territorial claim to the North. The British, meanwhile, are releasing prisoners, reviewing policing and incrementally scaling down the security presence.

In all this only the IRA remains mute. Their guns are silent, but so are their voices. It is hard to gauge whether they belong to the new pattern of political thinking or the old. There are signs that Dublin is growing restive. The Taoiseach said last week that he certainly would not stall over putting pressure on Sinn Fein; 10 months on, he said, the other parties to the agreement have discharged 95 per cent of their commitments and the IRA has done nothing.

Frustration is understandable. Yet the examples of peace processes in other parts of the world suggest that weapons are decommissioned at the end, rather than at the start, of negotiations. The Irish Foreign Minister, David Andrews, hopes that agreement will be reached between the Northern Ireland political parties on the North/South implementation bodies early this week. The number and functions of Northern ministries may also be decided. The way would then be open to legislate for these bodies in advance of the scheduled February transfer of powers. When all these institutions have been legislated for, and are ready to go, the IRA may find the flexibility to make a start on decommissioning. Without it, the peace process could stall fatally and Ireland might see a sustained renewal of violence - one which, the men of violence should reflect, the governments in Dublin and London now have the mandate to quash ruthlessly.

It need not, and must not, come to that. In Dublin last week, Tony Blair emphasised the importance of Europe in the future of Ireland. This, of course, is one reason why Margaret Thatcher has changed her mind: she and the other Tory sceptics have an outdated notion of sovereignty that has no room for the possibility of a European solution to the Anglo-Irish problem. The years ahead will offer something different. It may be in a Europe of the Regions or perhaps in something else; the hints from Bertie Ahern that Ireland may consider rejoining the Commonwealth are evidence of that. But now is not the time for prescriptions. Nor is it time for despondency. The Good Friday agreement is being implemented, and can be fully implemented. Wishful thinking is always dangerous. Abandonment of hope is even more dangerous, however. Despondency is every bit as threatening to the future of Ireland as intransigence.