Leading Article: Steadily laying Irish ghosts to rest

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JOHN MAJOR has shown once again his underestimated, and as yet unrewarded, political skills. He ended the ban on broadcasting the words of Sinn Fein and he promised Ulster Unionists a referendum on the future of the province. The Prime Minister thus provided an inducement to the IRA and reassured Unionists that no clandestine deal would jeopardise their loyalty. After a shaky few weeks, it looks as if the Northern Ireland peace process has regained momentum. In an island not short of paradoxes, the evidence of rapid progress has been provided by violent reaction. A terrorist bomb was planted at Connolly station in Dublin, while, in the north, the Royal Ulster Constabulary battled a mob of 'loyalist' demonstrators. The hard men of the Protestant paramilitaries were always likely to push for action. But most Protestants will rightly see the guarantee of a referendum as a fact that drains their vicious strategy of moral or political sense.

It would be reassuring to think that the republican movement could see the next stage in astute and pragmatic fashion. But Martin McGuinness, whose views are now available gratis and at length to television viewers, is already holding forth in threatening terms. Irish nationalists are agreed - decreed Mr McGuinness blandly, as if he represented them all - that there can be no internal solutions, no partitional arrangements and no vetoes. It is a bit early for that sort of talk.

People like Mr McGuinness may now be seen and judged by the citizens whose democratic support they claim to seek, one benefit of the long overdue lifting of the television ban. If ever proof of its stupidity was required, his appearance on Friday night's news provided it. Truculent, guarded and repetitive, his performance showed that broadcasters were right to argue that television's job is to place political extremists under a spotlight. Conceived on an autocratic instinct, the ban served neither public security nor political progress. It should not be repeated.

But that is in the past. Albert Reynolds, the Irish Prime Minister, was wise to look to the future when he said at the weekend that a united Ireland would not come in this generation. Irish people, north and south, must let a future electorate decide in peace the shape of the nation. Like Joyce's hero who remarked that 'history is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake', Mr Reynolds understands that old ghosts must be laid to rest and demons exorcised from Irish politics. Both he and Mr Major have helped to start that process. The challenge now is to keep up a steady pace.