Leading Article: The political challenge of another Irish outrage

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Compare and contrast. In Amsterdam the leaders of countries locked for centuries in bitter strife - Catholics and Protestants, old enemies, ideological rivals - come together to talk, debate, win some, lose some. No one can say the recent history of European union has been especially edifying but at its core shines a big, bright and supremely attractive idea: peace. History is not all-determining.

At the same time, on Europe's periphery, atavistic nationalism claims two more victims. In Lurgan two community policemen were killed, murdered by an organisation which seems to have no idea of or interest in that wider Europe where states and sovereignties are in flux, where national borders are - for most practical purposes - disappearing. In that wider view, history long ago passed by the IRA and its political party Sinn Fein. No conceivable 21st-century future for Ulster or for the Republic of Ireland or indeed - notionally - for an island of Ireland as a single political entity contains their methods, their ideas or their bloody allegiances.

But none of that means the IRA is going to fade away, at least in the short to medium run; nor does it mean that Sinn Fein's support is going suddenly to evaporate on the dreary Catholic estates of Belfast or Londonderry. So after the shootings in Lurgan the question becomes: is there a case for talking to the terrorist nationalists and their political henchmen, even if there is every suspicion that "peace" (in that irenic sense detectable in Amsterdam) is something their very identity forbids. The answer from London (delivered by Tony Blair in Amsterdam) was no, at least for the time being. From Washington it was "probably not" and from Dublin (from prime minister-designate Ahern, who was scheduled to see Gerry Adams tomorrow) "maybe". We say that one way or another the talking has to go on. If stopped now, as a mark of respect for those murdered RUC officers, it has to be resumed. That is for one simple reason: fewer people are likely to be killed or harmed while the extremists are included, however marginally, in the conversation about Northern Ireland's future.

There is no point pretending that talking has achieved much so far. If the all-party talks which formally opened last June were a train, it would still be creeping along the departure platform, people still hanging out of the doors. And that is with Sinn Fein still kicking around on the concourse.

And now the marching season approaches. Mo Mowlam says sincerely that she will leave no stone unturned in seeking to persuade marchers and estate residents to compromise, negotiate, agree. But her interlocutors are not the people on the ground. They remain deaf to her pleas. On the Garvachy Road they have already been persuaded by Sinn Fein to make the march a flashpoint. In the Orange lodges they are determined, once again, to demonstrate their historical enthralment, regardless of cost.

By early July the Blair government, which offered a real opportunity for Northern Ireland, could be reduced to administering a state of siege. There is little point in regretting lost opportunity - and yet ... The appointment of Ms Mowlam, the new Prime Minister's fresh face, the British government's willingness to talk, so much might have been accomplished. But such "what ifs" imply there was a desire on the part of the nationalist extremists to give up, even temporarily, the "armed struggle".

As things are turning out, the Blair government's peaceful intent served as a useful cover for Sinn Fein in the Northern Irish local and the Republic's general elections. The tactic worked, a ballot paper in one hand and a gun in the other. There is a crude sense in which the trigger pulled in Lurgan on Monday was pulled in some metaphorical sense by all those thousands of voters who elected Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams as MPs and, in the Irish election, Caoimhghin O'Caolain into the Dail. At some point Republican voters have to take responsibility for the violence committed in response to their support.

The challenge facing Ms Mowlam, and Tony Blair behind her, is to fight the fires this summer and manage the inevitable security crises, while reserving some space, some energy, some hope for the resumption of politics. However hot, the season of marches and mayhem will eventually end. The question will again be: can there be a peace process without the participation of the extremist nationalists? The answer is no. But what is the minimum entry ticket, one that is politically acceptable in London let alone for the Unionists in Belfast? It is, and has to be, a cease-fire, accompanied by long-term professions of peaceful intent by Messrs McGuinness and Adams. It will not be acceptable to have that interspersed with bombing and shooting, and it must never become acceptable.

What kind of talks? Ms Mowlam must at least consider abandoning the 1996 effort, agenda-less after a year, and think about some alternative. One idea is to use the Dayton, Ohio proceedings which led to Bosnian peace as a model - to convene a group of "experts", get them to hammer out the basic accord then confront sectional chiefs with their work. But why should the Unionists buy a Dayton accord when they scarcely accepted Mitchell let alone the North compromise on marching? On the Dayton analogy, at some point the conference chair has to twist arms, some of them hard. That would probably mean Tony Blair having to cajole the Unionists - an evil fate for a Labour prime minister with so much else to strive for and accomplish away from the dark Ulster mire.