Leading Article: Peace within their grasp

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THE DRAMA unfolding over Northern Ireland is more than just another act in the apparently endless tragedy of bombings followed by failed political initiatives. There are now clear signs of a sea-change like that which has transformed Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

In the republican Falls Road, walls are plastered with slogans calling on support for the Hume-Adams talks. Many at last feel that there is life after death. Even in IRA strongholds, the population is facing up to the concept that progress could be made without killing. The strange comfort that some people derive from the violent status quo is being challenged as the idea of peace takes root in West Belfast.

Publication by Sir Patrick Mayhew yesterday of documentary exchanges with the IRA marked another aspect of this dramatic transformation. The public could observe the IRA - responsible for such murderous acts - as interested in diplomacy. Having recognised the bankruptcy of its campaign, the IRA is seeking an alternative way and may not be bent merely on mindless violence. That being the case, it is disgraceful that the killings continue.

At the same time, Northern Ireland policy and the Anglo-Irish relationship has moved centre-stage. For years, on both sides of the Irish Sea, policy was conducted beyond the view of public opinion. MPs and voters were not interested except when there was a bombing outrage. Empty benches in the Commons and the Dail indicated the paucity of concern.

All this has changed. The British government, after months of secret exchanges with the IRA, is reconciling its public and private attitudes towards that organisation. The truth is that it regards the IRA as essential to a political solution. In the Republic of Ireland, the Taoiseach, after his frosty reception of the Hume-Adams initiative, was forced to take the peace process seriously. Irish public opinion strongly backs negotiations if Sinn Fein forsakes violence.

Ian Paisley alone tries to hold on to old certainties. In contrast, James Molyneaux, anxious to maintain his special relationship with John Major, has held his fire. Perhaps he

too will prove himself amenable to change and to dealing with the new realities.

Mr Major has recognised the new climate. But he is in a weak parliamentary position. Events in the Twenties, though different in many regards, are instructive. In December 1920, a potential truce with the IRA broke down, only to be revived the following July as both the British forces and the IRA accepted that neither could win.

Lloyd George led a shaky coalition, yet still successfully negotiated the Anglo-Irish treaty. He had the advantage of having led the country to victory in the First World War and negotiated at Versailles. Mr Major will have to muster all his diminished authority if he is, like Lloyd George, to grasp what may be his historic opportunity.