LEADING ARTICLE: Peace before principles

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The Independent Online
THE QUESTION of whether the IRA should give up its arms - "decommissioning" as it is rather grandly called, as though the terrorists owned ships or nuclear reactors - has always been the biggest potential obstacle to the success of the Irish peace process. To make this an issue of principle, and so allow last week's Dublin summit to be called off, is entirely consistent with the past rhetoric of British ministers. Talking to terrorists, John Major once said, would turn his stomach; no progress could possibly be made if the shadow of the gun was hanging over the conference table. All this was part of what Bagehot might have called the "dignified" part of politics. Hardly anybody believed it even at the time, any more than people believe that the Queen's Speech signifies Her Majesty's endorsement of government policies. Once it began contacts with the terrorists - in secret and while people were still being killed and maimed by IRA bombings - the Government embarked on an entirely different road. From here on, the normal rules of politics applied, complete with fudges, mudges, deals and compromises. Mr Major and Sir Patrick Mayhew decided that, in order to give peace a chance, they would be utterly unprincipled. For that, they have earned the gratitude of the people of Northern Ireland.

So why should they now return to principle and jeopardise the peace process? Why dig in their heels over the IRA's refusal to start handing over arms, when even the police and the Army say that this is an issue of no importance? Gerry Adams and Sinn Fein have done everything asked of them: there has been no violence for a year, not even a significant threat of it. The fear that a breakaway group of hardliners would resume the bombing and shooting has not been realised. The Government has cause to be thankful that the discipline that made the IRA such a formidable enemy has also enabled its leaders to deliver a complete cessation of violence. But nothing can change the brutal facts. Without the terrorist campaign, Sinn Fein could not be taken seriously as a force in Irish politics. It will play a strong hand in talks because everybody knows that the violence could resume, from a new IRA leadership if not from the present one. The surrender of the odd pound of Semtex makes not a jot of difference to that. It is not as if, in the late 20th century, lethal weapons are in short supply. Far from securing the peace that Ulster has enjoyed for more than a year, an attempt to begin a hand-over of arms could shatter it if some sections of the IRA were to resist. Better to leave the weapons where they are, out of sight and unused.

The Government's fear is that, if it drops its insistence on an IRA hand- over, it will lose the support of the Unionists. But it is another brutal fact of the peace process that this has always been on the cards. The IRA wants a united Ireland; by opening a dialogue with the terrorists, by stating that it has no "selfish or strategic interest" in the north, the Government has implicitly acknowledged that, at the very least, Ulster's present status must change. The Unionists have always been likely to take the view, and with some justice, that they are being abandoned.

If principle is to be the rule, the one enunciated yesterday by David Trimble, the new leader of the Official Unionists, is the soundest: Sinn Fein should play no part in determining the constitutional future of Northern Ireland until it accepts that disbanding the IRA should be on the agenda. But peace is not always achieved by the application of principle. Northern Ireland has enjoyed a year of peace. The British government sacrificed a few principles to achieve that; the war-weary people of the province would happily see it sacrifice a few more to achieve another year.

It has never been easy to see how the peace process could arrive at a satisfactory conclusion. Somewhere down the road, the sticking-point will come: the Nationalists will find that they are not getting near enough to a united Ireland, or the Unionists will think they are getting much too near. By then, we must hope, peace will have become so much a part of normality that a return to violence would seem unthinkable. A political resolution would have to be found because there could be no other kind of resolution. Meanwhile, the Government must take things one day at a time, and look always for the pragmatic, not the principled solution.