Leading Article: Swallow hard, Mr Trimble, and keep talking

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Once more, without illusions. With a heavier heart this time round, the peace process in Northern Ireland has restarted. There is none of the jubilation and wild optimism that greeted the IRA ceasefire three years ago, because everyone is much more aware that this might be another false start. Which is just as well, because it means that expectations are lower, and the process might go further and last longer as a result.

It might, on the other hand, come to a halt rather quickly, that is to say, tomorrow, if David Trimble refuses to take part in talks. He, and Unionism, face a historic opportunity. Ever since, well, not the Battle of the Boyne, but at least since the workers' strike of 1974, Unionist leaders have asserted their traditional right to play the part of the Bigot on the Steps, posing for the cameras as they walk out, denouncing any change in Northern Ireland. If it is not exactly central to their cultural identity, it has long been regarded as a condition of their electoral viability among Unionist voters.

That may now be changing. One of the most hopeful signs in Northern Ireland was the decision of the Orangemen not to march down the Ormeau Road earlier this month, after their Drumcree parade was forced through. The result was that the diehards on both sides of the divide were both equally outraged, but that the marching season has been a largely peaceful one. Of course, the decision not to march did not come spontaneously from the Orange grassroots. But then neither was it wholly imposed from above: there was a willingness to do the right thing both among the leaders and the led of moderate Unionism. And Mr Trimble, to his credit, publicly supported the decision.

Another sign of the changing shape of Unionist politics is the emergence of politicians identified with loyalist terrorist organisations, who want to talk to Sinn Fein. David Ervine, leader of the Progressive Unionist Party, spoke yesterday of "flushing out" the IRA. And, because there is more than one voice of hard-line Unionism, Mr Trimble does not have to adopt that other traditional posture of leaders of mainstream Unionism, that of advancing sideways in order to avoid being outflanked by Ian Paisley.

So, Mr Trimble, history beckons. The ball is in your court, but hit it back and there is no doubt that the republican position is ultimately weaker. Stamp your foot and curse the umpire for the sake of the crowd if you must, but hit the ball back and go into all-party talks.

Mr Ervine's logic is correct - and central to the peace process. The purpose of all-party talks is to bring the IRA out into the daylight, to force Sinn Fein to put its rhetoric of peace and democracy to the test in public, and to end the assumption of exclusion and paranoia without which republican terrorism cannot thrive on any scale.

Equally, however, the Unionists have to accept that the disarmament question is a red herring. It is abhorrent that the IRA holds guns and Semtex. But terrorist organisations through history have rarely handed in their weapons. If peace is negotiated, the weapons usually rust and rot away. David Ervine sounded like John Hume when he declared yesterday: "It's a decommissioning of the minds that we require." And Mr Hume sounded like Mr Ervine when he pointed out that, if the IRA were playing games, "they could hand in a thousand guns on Monday and buy a thousand more on Tuesday".

Meanwhile, the Prime Minister and his Secretary of State have shown an impressive grasp of the situation. We have to remember that this was always going to be one of the toughest early tests of the new government, and so far Tony Blair and Marjorie Mowlam have risen to the challenge. One of Mr Blair's first encounters with "real" politics as Leader of the Opposition was when the IRA announced its last ceasefire in August 1994. He was sure-footed then, using the opportunity to drop Labour's stance as a "persuader" for a united Ireland, and he is sure-footed now. But Dr Mowlam, who in opposition was a talkative and engagingly disorganised junior member of the Shadow Cabinet, has turned out to be a forceful politician capable of taking tough decisions and justifying them.

The Prime Minister's self-confidence was evident in the Commons last week when he brushed aside Unionist objections to contacts with Sinn Fein. "I want a situation where either Sinn Fein gives up violence and comes into inclusive talks or, if it does not, it is absolutely clear that it is not coming into those talks because it will not give up violence," he said.

When the Prime Minister said the settlement train was leaving, with or without Sinn Fein on board, his approach was right, and it succeeded in flushing out the IRA this far. Now he has to make clear to Mr Trimble that his approach is even-handed: that the train will leave with or without the Unionists. Of course the analogy is hyperbolic - without either the Ulster Unionist Party or Sinn Fein there is no settlement train. But the meaning is clear: if one side or the other fails to take part in talks, it will be seen to be obstructing the cause of peace.

Mr Blair is in a strong position, not just because he is not beholden to Northern Irish votes in the Commons, but because he will be Prime Minister for a long time. He must make it clear to all the parties that if they try to wreck the talks for party political advantage, they will be held up for all to see as depriving the people of Northern Ireland of peace.