Leading Article: Leaving peace in the lurch

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Forty-eight hours ago, the political deadlock in Northern Ireland was about to to be broken. Senator George Mitchell's report outlined six commitments that would push Sinn Fein irrevocably into non-violent politics, without the IRA immediately handing over its arms. The report was widely greeted as a diplomatic masterpiece, requiring everyone to compromise a little, but in return sharing out the fig leaves for everyone to hide behind. It seemed the controversy over when the paramilitaries should hand in their arms, which has dogged the peace process for months, had been resolved. All-party talks at last looked possible. The tension that had built up over 17 months of peace, but with little progress to a lasting settlement, was set to ease.

Sadly, that is not how it has turned out. Instead, the British and Irish governments are at loggerheads. The ugly nationalist-Unionist divide - with Dublin on one side squaring up to London on the other - has re- emerged after a decade of Anglo-Irish co-operation. No one can be sure how the hardliners within the IRA will respond.

The problem is that out of the blue on Wednesday John Major (to the surprise even of his counterpart in Dublin) made the creation of an elected Northern Ireland assembly the centrepiece of his response to Mitchell. That sounds harmless enough, but three previous attempts to create such assemblies either turned into vehicles for Unionist domination or collapsed in sectarian bitterness. As Mr Major made his announcement, faith in him among nationalists north and south of the Irish border evaporated. The Prime Minister may feel that nationalists have over-reacted but he has to prove their suspicions wrong.

The Prime Minister may have found a clever and as yet unthought of way of getting talks going, if slightly later than expected. By dropping the Government's pre-condition that arms should be decommissioned before talks can start, he has opened the door to Sinn Fein. By accepting the Unionists' proposal for an elected body, he has made it impossible for them to stay away from all-party talks, even if these must now be delayed until the summer to allow time for elections.

As yet the role of the proposed assembly is unclear. Dublin might come round to the idea if the elections were simply a way to select a group of negotiators rather than - as the Unionists would like - an old-style assembly dominated by them which could take votes on issues of policy.

But as long as the Prime Minister fails to make his intentions clear, Dublin will suspect the worst. The Irish government fears that Britain has suddenly lurched away from seeing the Anglo-Irish relationship as the rock upon which a political settlement will be built. Many nationalists think that Mr Major, mindful of his tiny Commons majority, is in the pocket of David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist leader. They suspect that British initiatives are now designed to delay rather than enable political progress so that Mr Major can cling to power.

This depressing conclusion may well be mistaken given Mr Major's commitment to peace in Northern Ireland. But the Prime Minister now has a great deal to do to convince a large slice of increasingly sceptical opinion that he is still acting in good faith.