Leading article: It's a matter of life and death, Mr Trimble

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The Independent Online
In a few days, the people of Scotland and Wales go to the polls to say what they think of passing limited powers of government from London to Edinburgh and Cardiff. At first blush, it seems curious that the early days of the Government should be dominated by unfinished business from 18 years ago, rerunning the disastrous referendums of 1979. This is, after all, New Labour, quite unconnected with the failed policies and ideas of the past. But the truth is that devolution was not a failed policy, simply a difficult one, and it is essential that the business of devolution be completed. One of the most serious charges in the court of history against the Conservative Party is that it failed in 18 years to make the long-overdue adjustment within the United Kingdom to the principle of self-determination which has spread, with liberal democracy, across the globe.

There are other parts of the United Kingdom, however, where this process of adjustment needs to be completed. Yesterday the cause of Cornish nationalism suffered a setback as one of its poets was found to be freely plagiarising Scottish verses. But today the adjustment process in Northern Ireland takes an infinitely more important and more serious step forward.

Sinn Fein and the IRA have long sustained their claim to a united Ireland by appealing to the principle of self-determination, in their case of the people of the whole island of Ireland. Tony Blair has been criticised for promising too many referendums. If anything, he should be taken to task for promising too few. In addition to next month's votes in Scotland and Wales, there is an urgent need to hold referendums on Northern Ireland's future both in Northern Ireland and in the Republic. This is the best way, ultimately, to undercut Sinn Fein's pretence to the high moral ground, because the one thing that would not come out of such a simultaneous referendum would be a mandate for a united Ireland. The majority in the north want to remain part of the United Kingdom, while the majority in the south do not want to absorb the north at the price of taking on a mirror image of the last 25 years of violence.

The only referendums in which Sinn Fein could win a Yes vote for a united Ireland would be in west Belfast and (possibly) New York. So an all-Ireland test of opinion would puncture the romance of Gerry Adams's claim to be fighting for the right of self-determination. Once the end point of the "peace process" is defined in this way, as "not a united Ireland", it is difficult to see why Sinn Fein and the IRA are so keen on talks, and the Ulster Unionists so reluctant. This is the underlying reason why David McKittrick, our Ireland editor, expressed optimism last week about the prospects for lasting peace. But David Trimble, the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, has yet to step up on to the pedestal provided, before our optimism is justified. Yesterday, he continued to keep his options open and his guard guarded, but the fact that he is talking to the Prime Minister about how talks with Sinn Fein might take place, rather than telling the world from the steps of Downing Street why they will not, is already a half-step up.

Today, Marjorie Mowlam is expected to announce that the IRA ceasefire qualifies Sinn Fein to take part in the talks. It is certainly true that, so far, the second ceasefire has been different from the first in that there have been no punishment beatings or low-level gangsterism carried out under its fringes.

The critical outstanding issue is that of the IRA's refusal to surrender weapons. Mr Trimble stands on a firm platform of public opinion - across the UK - by stressing the repugnance of talking to terrorists or their apologists while they reserve the right to resort to violence. But Mr Blair, quite rightly, is putting pressure on him to compromise on the real-world grounds that there is no alternative. (In passing, it is worth pouring a dose of heavy scepticism over ex-spy David Shayler's claim that MI5 could have "finished off" the IRA - the only way to stem republican violence is to "finish off" the social and ideological conditions in which it flourishes.)

While Mr Blair and Dr Mowlam are under an obligation to come up with procedural devices and forms of words to finesse the weapons issue, the primary responsibility, not just to the Unionist population but to posterity, lies with Mr Trimble. All his career he has played the role of hardliner, the risk-averse route to the top in Unionist politics, but now is the moment to take a risk for peace. Throughout the Unionist community in Northern Ireland, there is a desire that talks with Sinn Fein take place. A sea-change has occurred in the attitudes of a community accustomed to achieving its goals by boycott, abstention and obstruction. Mr Trimble's risk is that the change has not permeated so far through the ranks of his own party. But he has cleverly launched a consultation exercise beyond the ranks of his party which could cover his entry into talks.

We cannot know the precise nature of any settlement that may come out of such talks, although two elements are obvious. One is that Northern Ireland will remain part of the United Kingdom; the other is that it will have a special relationship with the Irish Republic. We do not know whether a settlement could be hammered out by next May, the deadline Mr Blair has set for talks, but it is worth having such a deadline, and bearing in mind the prospect of Irish referendums at the end of the process.

No one suggests that next month's votes in Scotland and Wales are unimportant, but the process leading to a referendum on Northern Ireland is a matter of life and death. It is up to Mr Trimble to begin it.