LEADING ARTICLE: Stalled, but not doomed

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The cancellation of the Anglo-Irish summit this week has raised awful questions in many people's minds. Is the Northern Ireland peace process doomed? Have we begun the countdown to a return to the assassinations, bombings and "regrettable mistakes" that shattered the lives of people in these islands for 25 years?

The answer is no. The peace process is stalled, but it is stalled at a non-lethal stage in Ireland's recent history. There is no short- or medium-term likelihood of a resumption of the killing. But if things are not dangerous, they are very frustrating. And if, as Yeats wrote, "too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart", then too long a period of frustration could one day lead to violence.

It is all the more frustrating because for a while real progress seemed imminent - an international commission on the decommissioning of weapons looked likely to begin its work, alongside a parallel process of preliminary talks, leading eventually to all-party talks. Weapons would be talked about - and the future of the province would be talked about. Great.

The sticking point turned out to be the old one of whether or not any talks could happen without the IRA (and loyalist paramilitaries) making some concrete gesture by surrendering a portion of their arsenals. The British government said no, the Irish government disagreed.

For all the rhetoric and editorialising, one thing must be borne in mind: the issue of the decommissioning of weapons is not, as some are describing it, a "fundamental matter of principle". True, it has highly symbolic value for both republicans and Unionists, but the real principle at stake is the actual use of force to coerce people against their will. If some are prepared to use such force, they will always be able to get the weapons.

Britain, rightly heeding the sensibilities of the Unionists (especially with an election pending for the leadership of the Ulster Unionist Party), clearly calculates that a tough position may be able to wring path-smoothing surrenders of some weapons on the part of the IRA. John Bruton and Dick Spring have a different analysis. They are worried that even were Gerry Adams to agree to such a surrender, it would provoke a split within the republican movement. And everybody agrees that such a split would be the quickest route to renewed terrorism.

No one (except, perhaps, a number of belligerent republicans) knows who is right about this. Suffice it to say that British intelligence about the internal state of play in the IRA has not been noted for its past triumphs. But somehow or other a final judgement will have to be made. And if, as seems most likely, Sir Patrick Mayhew and John Major are eventually persuaded that Mr Adams cannot deliver the sought-after gesture, they will have to find some way of finessing their change of heart. When this happens, those who support the peace process must stand ready to defend the Government from the inevitable cries of "treason".