LEADING ARTICLE: Major should take Mitchell's way out

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John Major is being offered a way to break nearly a year's political deadlock in Northern Ireland. He has a plan on his desk that should persuade the Government to set aside its demand that the IRA should give up its weapons before constitutional talks can begin. It sets out in detail how to persuade Sinn Fein to make a genuine and irrevocable commitment to ensuring that the days of violence are over for ever.

The plan drawn up by the former US senator, George Mitchell, and his international commission is published today. The Prime Minister should seize upon it.

Senator Mitchell has not gone soft on Sinn Fein. His plan requires Gerry Adams to go further than ever before in accepting the democratic process in Northern Ireland. If Sinn Fein were to join talks, the party would have to promise to be bound by any democratically agreed settlement, even if it opposed aspects of the deal.

This would be a considerable concession for the republicans, for it would require them implicitly to acknowledge that their historic goal of a united Ireland would have to be sacrificed. And Mr Mitchell has not set aside altogether the ambition to disarm the paramilitaries. He proposes it should be staged. Decommissioning of arms would be expected to take place in parallel with all-party talks, as a way of building confidence.

Mr Mitchell is also expected to make concessions to the Unionist side, favouring their suggestion that an elected assembly should be convened to discuss constitutional reform. Nationalists on both sides of the Irish border will not like this concession.

Nevertheless, John Major will have to swallow some of his pride, if he is to accept the Mitchell report. Not to accept it would risk derailing the peace process completely. He will have to set aside the repeated demand that the IRA must give in at least some weapons before all-party talks can begin.

This was always an ill-judged demand. In Ireland there is no precedent of rebels handing in guns before talks. The Government's own security forces have made plain their view that the IRA would never agree to the demand. It is almost impossible to find a single conflict around the world where surrender of weapons preceded negotiations.

Yet ministers have stuck doggedly to this precondition for nearly a year. Their insistence led to an Anglo-Irish summit being cancelled in the autumn and nearly blighted President Clinton's visit in November.

It has been difficult to understand the Government's determination. Even the Ulster Unionists have wavered on the issue, indicating that the arms question could be fudged, provided an assembly was elected for constitutional talks.

Now there is a way out, providing Sinn Fein and others are prepared to make similarly difficult concessions. Today, Mr Major should give the Mitchell plan his backing. He would call Sinn Fein's bluff : it would then be up to Gerry Adams to prove that he really believes in peace and democracy.