Leading Article: Talking peace, making war

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THE mortar bombing of Heathrow airport was a dark moment for those who hoped that December's Downing Street declaration was a prelude to peace in Northern Ireland. It would now require heroic optimism to escape the conclusion that the IRA has turned down that option. Yesterday, Gerry Adams rejected claims that the bombing was a setback to resolving the conflict. But there can be little prospect of a breakthrough as long as his party pursues a strategy of talking peace and making war.

Yet the architects of the peace process should not be too disheartened. It is notoriously difficult to draw the violent elements in Irish nationalism into constitutional politics. The few successes have been marked by strong leadership and military humiliation. Charles Stewart Parnell's grim autocratic style subdued Fenian rebels and turned them into parliamentarians in the 1870s. Eamon de Valera achieved a similar feat when he persuaded most of his Sinn Fein followers to form the Fianna Fail party in 1926.

In general, however, radical Irish republicanism has been reluctant to forsake violence. This secular religion seems unable to recognise that the lifeblood of nationalism does not have to spring from killing. So neither the British nor the Irish governments should be particularly surprised by the outcome so far of their joint declaration. Gerry Adams is no Parnell or de Valera and the IRA has not been defeated.

Much has, however, been accomplished over the past few months. The declaration has brought the Anglo-Irish relationship up to date. London made clear that its support for the Union is based not on self- interest but on the will of Northern Ireland's majority. Dublin has accepted that a united Ireland can be achieved only by consent. Each of these sentiments chimes with popular opinion in the two countries and makes the declaration a statement likely to stand the test of time. Its value does not depend on acceptance by the IRA.

Recent months have also seen a welcome openness in discussion about Northern Ireland. The Government's secret manoeuvrings during the past decade have been made plain and Sinn Fein has been forced to face difficult questions. For all the embarrassment it caused, the visit by Mr Adams to the United States also gave the Sinn Fein president a taste of what political life might be like if the violence ceases. Even if the IRA leadership has not been persuaded to abandon the Armalite, there may now be a few more voices within its ranks ready to consider an end to the fighting.

The two governments are left to press forward amid the disillusionment that has followed the Heathrow attack. Substantial constitutional negotiations seem unlikely in the short term. The IRA remains intransigent. In this impasse, London and Dublin must maintain their unity, redouble their security co-operation and continue the long and depressing wait for the men of violence to recognise the futility of their actions.