Leading Article: Killing to keep Ireland at war

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THE HIDEOUS murder of a pregnant Catholic women on Sunday and a country butcher yesterday afternoon is a reminder of the sickness at the heart of the Irish problem and many other armed conflicts: that, whatever their grievances and purposes, their rights and wrongs, they attract twisted characters in search of supposedly legitimate reasons for killing.

Such people on both sides are doing their best to prevent a ceasefire. They will also try to subvert any settlement that may be reached because they judge that they will lose power and status if they cannot kill. The threat they pose will increase if the IRA leaders ever bring themselves to announce a ceasefire.

Reports that a ceasefire may in fact be planned for the end of this month could have been the reason for Sunday's murder and the defiant statement by the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) that followed it: 'Brace yourselves for death because you are going to see plenty of it.' Probably, however, the Sunday killers believed they were still retaliating for recent killings of Protestant paramilitaries.

Unlike the IRA, the UVF is not under central political direction, so it is less likely to make a planned political gesture. Local groups operate semi-autonomously and do not appear to care whom they kill, provided their victim is a Catholic. The IRA chooses its targets with more precision, though it is equally indifferent to innocent people who happen to get in the way. At the moment it is killing fewer people than the so-called loyalists.

The distinction matters only in so far as it reinforces warnings that any progress towards peace with the IRA will be accompanied by escalating violence from the UVF and UFF, aided and abetted by extremist republican groups. Participants in the peace process will then need to keep their nerve, as the Israelis and moderate Arabs have done in the face of provocation from extremists on both sides.

But the peace process remains difficult to detect in spite of efforts by Sinn Fein to persuade us that it is still in being, that the Downing Street Declaration has not been finally rejected, and that a ceasefire should not be ruled out. This line seems intended to extract further concessions from the British government, in particular a commitment to become a 'persuader' in urging the Protestants to accept Irish unity.

Sinn Fein would clearly like to draw Britain into negotiations against the deadline of a limited ceasefire. This should be resisted. The Downing Street Declaration represents the best the two governments can offer, and declares that Britain has no selfish claim on Ireland. Sinn Fein should stop prevaricating and the IRA should give up shooting. Too many sadists on both sides in Northern Ireland have come to see the gun as their way of life.

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