Yet suddenly all has changed. At midnight last night, those who perpetrated that horror laid down their arms. Even more remarkable was the manner in which the Protestant paramilitaries announced their ceasefire. Organisations that had murdered more than 900 people, most of them guilty only of having been born Catholic, offered 'abject and true remorse' to the loved ones of all innocent victims. 'No word of ours will compensate for the intolerable suffering they have undergone during the conflict. Let us resolve to never again permit our political circumstances to degenerate into bloody warfare.'
The loyalists had little option other than to call a halt: the end of the IRA's campaign made violence ever more indefensible. And words of regret are cheap. But the style of yesterday's announcement was a model of contrition that Gerry Adams should emulate.
The loyalist attitude also highlights the hesitation with which others are embracing the peace process. John Major could reasonably be asked why, if the Protestant paramilitaries are now satisfied with the IRA ceasefire, he still has doubts. Understandably, the Government was cautious at first, but it should now organise early substantive talks involving all parties and representatives of the Protestant paramilitaries.
Yesterday's announcement offers the greatest challenge of all to Unionist politicians. Loyalist paramilitaries have long been dismissed as thugs and political illiterates. Yet elected Unionist leaders now lag behind them. 'Let us firmly resolve,' the statement read, 'to respect our differing views of freedom, culture and aspiration'. It is difficult to imagine such a pluralist sentiment falling from the lips of Ian Paisley. The leader of the Democratic Unionist Party had little to do with this ceasefire: just six weeks ago, he predicted civil war.
James Molyneaux, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, has eschewed extremism and has played an important role in calming Protestants. Yet he, too, fails to transcend tribal politics. His party's annual conference opens tomorrow and will be an exclusively Protestant affair. The loyalist gunmen may have forsaken killing Catholics, but Mr Molyneaux remains Deputy Grand Master of the Orange Order, a secret society to which no Catholic need apply. He should take his lead from the National Party in South Africa, which has shed its 'whites only' image, broadened its appeal and achieved electoral success.
In 1922 Winston Churchill observed how 'the whole map of Europe has changed'. Yet across the Irish Sea he saw only 'the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone emerging once again'. We have in recent years seen another dramatic transformation of Europe. Yet Northern Ireland's problems could once more prove intractable unless elected Unionist leaders courageously develop yesterday's loyalist initiative.Reuse content