Leading Article: Peace process has not failed

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The Independent Online
SINN FEIN'S rejection of the Downing Street Declaration was expected but disappointing. The prospect of a ceasefire had flickered tantalisingly on the horizon since December. Unionists and others said at the start that the Hume-Adams agreement was a trap and that the British government should have nothing to do with it. They now claim vindication. They are wrong. The Government has a duty to explore any openings that might lead to peace.

In this case it had received the impression from its own contacts with the IRA that the terrorists were war-weary and looking for a face-saving way out. The Hume- Adams document seemed to confirm this and provide the basis for a ceasefire. The only way of discovering what it really meant was to put it to the test. The fact that it has not survived the test does not prove or disprove that it was a trap. It remains possible that Gerry Adams was acting in good faith but miscalculated his own people. It is also possible, indeed likely, that he is still hoping to squeeze concessions out of the British government. After all, he won some minor 'clarification' of the declaration after five months of trying, so it would be logical to try for more.

Meanwhile, the efforts of the past nine months have done more good than harm. They have concentrated minds on the fundamental issues and points of difference. The Irish government has become readier to discuss constitutional change. The British government has formally indicated that it is willing to give up Northern Ireland if its people agree. The IRA has been shown up as rejecting a democratic solution. American supporters of Sinn Fein have been made to look more nave than ever. It has not been a waste of time.

The question now is how to proceed. The unification of Ireland will come about naturally when the Protestants become the minority in Northern Ireland. This will take at least 20 years of demographic change. It could probably be accelerated, or made smoother, if terrorism were to end, which is why the IRA is working against its own declared interest. But it will be less painful for the Unionists if it is planned over years.

The Government is, therefore, right to concentrate on negotiations with the Irish government because it is that relationship that will ultimately determine how the transition is made. At the same time, however, there is no reason to abandon efforts to achieve a ceasefire that would allow Sinn Fein to join negotiations. There is little room for manoeuvre around Sinn Fein's refusal to accept majority voting in Northern Ireland but if face-saving is all it wants, which is far from clear, that could be arranged.

These efforts must be combined with tighter security measures. Internment would probably not help, even if both sides were taken in, but, with more co-operation from Dublin, other measures could be taken. The British government has done what it reasonably could for a ceasefire. It must now do its best to curb the terrorism that seems bound to follow.