LEADING ARTICLE : Prevarication: the enemy of peace in Ireland

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In the last full year before the guns fell silent in Northern Ireland, 84 people died in political violence. Since the IRA ceased fire on 1 September - closely followed by the loyalists - there have been three such killings. The endurance of peace in Northern Ireland indicates both impressive self-discipline among the warring parties and a general war- weariness. Virtually nobody wishes to start the killing again.

Peace has brought many dividends. People can sleep without fear of being shot in their beds. The bombing that tore the heart out of town centres has ended. Troops have become a rare sight - two army battalions have already been relocated from Northern Ireland. Border roads have opened. A wave of tourists has sought out the Mountains of Mourne and the Giants' Causeway. The economy is booming: even house prices are rising.

Both nationalists and Unionists have enjoyed the political fruits of peace. The Framework Documents, agreed between the British and Irish governments in February, secured important concessions for each community. Dublin explicitly accepted the Union as long as the majority in Northern Ireland wish to stay within the UK. Britain went further than ever in recognising the legitimacy of nationalist aspirations to a united Ireland. In the documents, the two governments also set out an amendable blueprint of new institutions that could be the basis for negotiation.

In May, Sinn Fein held its first talks with Sir Patrick Mayhew, by which time the broadcasting ban on its representatives had been lifted. Then yesterday, the Northern Ireland Secretary announced new remission terms that will cut the sentences of scores of republican and loyalist prisoners. He promised to revise anti-terrorist legislation and reform the still Protestant-dominated Royal Ulster Constabulary.

Putting all this together, as Sir Patrick did yesterday in his speech in Belfast, suggests considerable progress. Yet the reality is more disappointing. In fact, political movement in Northern Ireland over the past year has been glacial: the politicians have failed to underpin the ceasefire. One year on, it is extraordinary that the main political parties have yet to meet. The paralysis is reminiscent of the peace talks in Paris aimed at ending the Vietnam war: the belligerents spent months arguing over the shape of the conference table.

Nor has peace been followed by an outpouring of bonhomie between the two communities. The past month's marching season has demonstrated, first in Portadown and then in Londonderry, the deep animosity that still prevails between northern Protestants and Catholics. There are as yet no grand plans for celebrations to mark the anniversary of the ceasefire: it will be business as usual next week when Sinn Fein holds a mass demonstration in Dublin and the Orange Order marches in Belfast.

The problems in breaking the log-jam lie partly in London but, more fundamentally, in a besieged form of Unionism that finds it almost impossible, even in a period of peace, to emerge from its defensive, bunker mentality.

The peace process would, all sides now acknowledge, have been almost impossible without the sponsorship and commitment of John Major. But the weakness of his political position - both in Parliament and within his own party -has militated against the strong leadership that any deal on Northern Ireland requires. A variety of influential figures within Northern Ireland now say privately that military and security considerations, voiced most strongly within the Cabinet by Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, are leading policy making and so preventing a more adventurous political approach by the Government.

The Government promised that Britain's reaction to a ceasefire would be "imaginative and flexible". Over the past year it has failed to fulfil that pledge. Yesterday's announcement was a case in point. It was not, as some Sinn Fein critics said, "derisory". But the reduction in sentences was the very minimum that the Government could have done and came months later than anticipated.

It is, of course, crucial that the Government should not favour one community over the other. But the biggest threat to the peace process is pressure from extremists within the IRA on Gerry Adams. The Sinn Fein president must hold off the hardliners by convincing them that Britain is no longer an "imperialist player" in Ireland. In that difficult task, Sir Patrick has done Mr Adams too few favours.

Turning the decommissioning of paramilitary weapons into a precondition for full-scale talks with Sinn Fein has been a mistake. The matter was originally given priority by ministers to assuage the concern of Unionists. But it has now been given so much priority that political progress has effectively been blocked. Preoccupation with this issue has also lulled Unionist opinion into believing that there is really no need for rethinking entrenched positions.

Such a dogmatic stance is understandable. Unionists have until now regarded any concession to nationalism as being the first step down the road to ruin. And when they see John Hume, the acceptable face of moderate nationalism, striking up a relationship with Mr Adams, many feel justified in their fears. There are a few indications of openness to political change, particularly among the loyalist paramilitaries. But the most encouraging sign from Unionism is that the past year has been characterised by stasis rather than a shift to more extremist politics.

Yet the Unionist community may be missing an historic opportunity. Northern nationalism remains, it is true, embittered and often unsympathetic towards its fears. But the same is not true south of the border, where 75 years of independence have healed wounds, made aggressive nationalism unrespectable and produced the first consensus in the Republic prepared to accept the legitimacy of the Union. In 10 years, who knows how opinion may change? Now is the time for Unionists to negotiate with their southern neighbours. All that is being asked is that they talk. Nothing more.

Nearly a year after the ceasefires, with a general election at most 18 months away, this is the moment for the British government to set a more ambitious political pace. Mr Major must again lead from the front rather than from behind, as he has done latterly. Opportunities to secure lasting political settlements are rare in Irish history. And on this occasion, as before, the germs of hatred and sectarianism could easily multiply to overwhelm the best intentions of those who prevaricate.