Leading Article: Peace should be the priority

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THE relative lightness of the legislative programme put forward in the Queen's Speech yesterday reflects the Government's weakness. After a first year in which Conservative Party divisions were on almost permanent view during the passage of the Maastricht ratification Bill, nothing too divisive could be risked. Notable omissions include the privatisation of the Post Office and the equalisation of pensions. With attention likely to be dominated by yet another massive Criminal Justice Bill, the emphasis is on propitiating grass roots opinion within the party.

This rightwards adjustment lacks even a sniff of the stuff of history. John Major was wise to sense that something more memorable was needed to help to redeem his party from its low point in public esteem. Northern Ireland is precisely such an issue and - following his courageous and widely welcomed speech at Guildhall - he duly gave it pride of place yesterday. The most important points he made in the Commons were first, that the Government would put proposals of its own on the table if it would be helpful to do so; and second, that no party could exercise a veto on progress.

Mr Major's thrust was unambiguously clear: if talks with the constitutional parties in Northern Ireland once again prove to be fruitless, the Government stands ready to appeal to the people of Northern Ireland over the heads of their elected representatives. The warning is most obviously addressed to Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party, whose reactions to Mr Major's new willingness to contemplate sitting down under clearly defined conditions with Sinn Fein have been of relentless hostility.

Mr Major neatly contrasted what he called the 'palpable mood for peace' felt by many with a need to be endlessly avenged experienced by others. He coupled these implied admonitions to the DUP with a repeated guarantee that there would be no change in Northern Ireland's status without the freely confessed consent of its people; and observed shrewdly that it was now for Sinn Fein, the IRA and loyalist paramilitaries to draw the right conclusions.

The country would suffer no great loss if many of the 13 new measures outlined in the Queen's Speech were to fall by the wayside. If, by contrast, Mr Major could become the Prime Minister who brought peace and a stable new political order to Northern Ireland, the country would heave a collective sigh of relief and thanks.

It is in the nature of governments to be forever making and unmaking legislation, much of which is gratuitous. The violence in Northern Ireland - and on the mainland - is not just a constantly recurring human tragedy. It is also a drain on national resources, and a source of many misperceptions of this country. For Mr Major to give the search for a solution the high-

est priority would be an act of

political wisdom as well as of

statesmanship.

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