LEADING ARTICLE : Keeping open the door to peace

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John Major's statement yesterday on the Docklands bombing was a model of dignified restraint. Three days after the IRA's outrage, a speech full of strong language and condemnation might have roused his backbenchers. But it would have wrecked for good a fragile peace process that needs resuscitation, not further blows. The Prime Minister chose a measured, unemotive tone that left many ways open to political progress.

In particular, he avoided isolating Sinn Fein, which remains the key to re-establishing peace. If anyone can talk the IRA away from a return to violence, it is Gerry Adams, Sinn Fein's president. So, although Mr Major excluded Mr Adams and company from ministerial talks until there is a fresh ceasefire, he did not ban meetings with civil servants. Likewise, although Mr Major rightly demanded that Sinn Fein should commit itself exclusively to peaceful politics, he stepped back from requiring Mr Adams to commit political suicide - he did not call on Sinn Fein to condemn the IRA for Friday's bombing.

None of this was easy: Mr Major's self-control demonstrated his commitment to finding a way out of the impasse. The Prime Minister's diplomatic skills over Northern Ireland were back in evidence. It drew a similarly statesmanlike response from Tony Blair.

Mr Major is sticking to his controversial idea of speedy elections for a constitutional negotiating body that could hold all-party talks. It would have been inconceivable for him to drop this proposal so soon after the bombing. That would have looked like bowing to terrorism.

But the original proposals have been watered down to make them more acceptable to Dublin and the nationalists. Mr Major also made clearer than ever that elections are designed to facilitate talks rather than delay them, which is what most nationalists suspect. Indeed, he left open the possibility that elections may cease to be central to the Government's strategy: Mr Major repeated again and again that he would consider other options as a way to open all-party talks. "Minds are not closed," he said.

His style should help to heal the strains that had developed in Anglo- Irish relations over the past few months, which intensified in the past two weeks. After yesterday's speech, the way is now open for a package of fresh suggestions for creating the basis for all-party talks that the Dublin government is preparing. The Irish premier can expect them to enjoy a more respectful reception than has been the case with other ideas from Dublin over recent months.

All of this was the type of broad-minded, imaginative approach that the cause of peace requires. Mr Major did enough to ensure that the peace process has been kept alive, at least for the moment. But to take the process forward will require more than just openness. As he himself acknowledged, it will mean taking further risks. There will be moments, he indicated, when everyone would have to accept that the ends justified the means. In other words the goal of peace is so important that all the parties to that peace may have to swallow some of their objections to how it is achieved.

Such cryptic statements are full of possibility. They do not address the detailed issues that must be resolved. They do not, for example, establish an essential early date for all-party talks, once a ceasefire is declared and Sinn Fein rejects violence. But Mr Major did the best he could, so soon after Friday's atrocity, to prevent the situation deteriorating.

Mr Major has kept open the possibility of peace. It is now up to politicians from other parties, the Unionists included, to respond in kind. Anyone who pronounces or contributes to the premature demise of the peace process is behaving recklessly.

The greatest responsibility now lies with Gerry Adams. Armed with Mr Major's essentially conciliatory stance, he must convince the IRA that the political process, far from being moribund, is still full of opportunity for nationalists to achieve their goals more effectively than through guerrilla warfare. This is the message he must convey to secure a new ceasefire.

Mr Adams should recognise that Mr Major would be unable to maintain the restraint he demonstrated yesterday if the IRA were to set off a string of bombs. There is an opportunity now to save the peace process. It could not survive the anger that an extended IRA campaign would generate. It is up to Mr Adams to act.