LEADING ARTICLE : The potential for peace, or trouble

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Rarely can a politician have been accused of selling out so many for the sake of so few. Yesterday's announcement of plans for elections in Northern Ireland, to pave the way for all-party peace talks, was greeted with a wave of accusation and counter-accusation. The truth is that Unionists, for all their hot air, are quite pleased with the proposals. The Irish government gave them a muted welcome. Nationalist outrage is as fierce as it was predictable. The proposed compromise over the election procedure is sensible. The problem is not with that but the role of the 110-seat Forum that voters will be electing. Mr Major's account of that role yesterday risked further alienating already sceptical nationalists.

The election process will be complicated. Parties will field a different shortlist of candidates in each of Northern Ireland's 18 constituencies. Voters will choose the list they prefer. A top-up system will make sure that the 10 favourite parties will all get two more representatives. Confused? That is understandable, but simplicity is not the most important attribute of the proposals. The purpose of these elections is to ease the parties swiftly into peace negotiations. That is the standard against which they should be measured.

The voting method itself should prove no obstacle to talks. In advocating different electoral systems each party has been trying to maximise their representation. The Democratic Unionists and the SDLP, with their high- profile leaders, would have benefited from a presidential- style election in which each voter chose the party they wanted in a single Ulster-wide constituency. The Ulster Unionists would have come out better under a Westminster style election. The Government's compromise was bound to upset, but it provides reasonably fair representation for all parties.

The same cannot be said, unfortunately of role the elected body is to play. The plan is for every party represented in the Forum to send a negotiating team to the talks - with the exception of Sinn Fein if the IRA ceasefire is not restored. However, the Forum will continue to exist after negotiations are under way and that will not improve the prospects for peace. The two main Unionist parties are likely to command a majority of the seats. Like every Northern Ireland Assembly that has preceded it, it will quickly become the symbol of the Unionist majority. This is what the nationalists fear.

In theory the Forum will remain independent of the negotiation process. But the Government admits that the negotiators could decide to draw it in. With those few words the Prime Minister has raised the spectre for the nationalists of the unionists deciding to involve a Unionist controlled Forum in the peace process. Fear of a return to majority-based decision making was exactly what led the SDLP to oppose these elections in the first place. Even more important, the prospect of the Forum lessens Sinn Fein's chances of persuading the IRA to resume the ceasefire.

The Government should make it clear that the Forum will definitely be excluded from the negotiation process unless every party agrees to its involvement. Unless they are firm about the limits on the Forum they will make negotiations difficult, consensus unlikely, and they will reduce the chances for peace.