It has been a long night's journey into day. The origins of today's settlement go back to the Downing Street Agreement of December 1993 and, indeed, the derided "talks about talks about talks" initiated by the former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Peter Brooke, almost a decade ago. The moral, political and physical commitment of all those who have been involved in the process has been impressive. It is right to pay more than a routine tribute to those whose energy and vision have helped to see the process through.
British statesmen have not always prospered when they intervened in Ireland: neither have they always served Ireland well. Stretching back centuries the political career of many a politician has foundered on the "Irish question". But in John Major and Tony Blair these islands found two prime ministers who understood the scale of the task and the political risks but who still felt that peace was worth the candle.
Even strong, patient and dogged leadership, though, was not enough. The negotiating skills and bravery of Mo Mowlam (not least when she visited the Maze prison) were also essential. We should also be thankful for the support provided by President Clinton and his "lending" us the trusted George Mitchell as chairman of the talks. Senator Mitchell in turn could not have succeeded without a change in mood amongst Northern Irish politicians. He in turn could not have succeeded without a change in mood amongst Northern Irish politicians.
The casual visitor to Northern Ireland is often told by people there that what they want is for their political leaders to simply sit down together, talk, and try to come to some agreement. Now almost all of Northern Ireland's political leaders have fulfilled the wish of those they represent. One in particular has been tireless. John Hume's quest for peace has spanned the period of the present troubles. We have become used to his belief that it is possible to bring the divided people of the island brought together. He wrote in this newspaper (before the current talks):
"What is generally referred to as nationalist Ireland has made it clear that it is the people of Ireland who are divided, not the territory. A divided people can only be brought together by agreement. Any coercion cannot hope to succeed. Not only does the peace process pose no threat to Unionism, it is the best possible way for the Unionist people to secure their future. Relying on the protection of their identity by a British government they do not trust seems to me a less successful recipe than accepting the challenge of trusting themselves to come to an agreement with the people with whom they share a piece of earth."
The Northern Ireland settlement is not the conception or the property of one man, but one could be forgiven for seeing in the it the Hume model of peace. But it may carry with it one of the weaknesses in another part of Mr Hume's approach - the faith in the prospect of a "total and complete cessation of violence".
Let us be clear. Now that the "peace process" is indeed a "peace settlement" it is not naive to be optimistic about its prospects. But nor, sadly, should we be absolutist - last night's events will not automatically mean a permanent and complete cessation of all violence. It is close to a matter of fact that the agreement will not mean the end of terrorism. It may well reinforce the split in the Provisional IRA. There are certainly those within its ranks who will be readily convinced that they have been sold out and that they must keep up the "armed struggle". The so-called Continuity IRA and the 32 County Sovereignty Committee are unlikely to be joining in the celebrations today.
There will also be a hard-line rump on the Unionist side who will also feel aggrieved. They too are capable of cowardly sectarian murders of "soft targets". Neither group will be as strong as their predecessors but they will be successful in generating terrorism, albeit at a lower pitch.
There will be a level of violence which is not tolerable but which will have to be tolerated, endured. In other words there will be cold, calculated, measured outrages geared to undermining the settlement and escalating hatred and tensions. It is a tactic that the IRA have employed in the past and they have a description of it - they call it "strictly modulated military activity". Republicanism's and Unionism's hard-liners have a vested and mutual interest in seeing an escalation of their violence wreck the settlement. There will be plenty more examples of the kind of scenes we saw the other night when a mob led by Ian Paisley tried to force their way into Stormont. Dr Paisley's actions will be followed by further rallies and attempts, even by leading members of Mr Trimble's own Ulster Unionists, to portray David Trimble as a traitor ("lundy" in the local parlance). Paisley has made his political living from outflanking mainstream Unionist leaders from Captain Terence O'Neill to Brian Faulkner and, now, Mr Trimble.
What should the response be to the political and other challenges?
We must all resist the temptation to see future violence described as a failure of the peace process. People in both parts of Ireland need to keep faith. They will soon be given opportunities to express their support for what their leaders have set up. In fact things will proceed almost as fast as the talks were slow. The twin referendums will be held in a few weeks' time and the elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly will follow in June.
We hope that no party will now practise "abstentionism" and employ one of the oldest of Irish tactics, the boycott. Mr Blair and the other parties to the agreement may have calculated that the less time those opposed to the deal have, the better. They are right to hurry things along. By the end of the year Ireland should be making a unique political experiment work, and the approach will set an example to some of the other troubled parts of the world. Indeed, one day, if the hard men are marginalised, Ireland's "new politics" may work as naturally as day following night.Reuse content