Leading Article: The realistic path to peace

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The Independent Online
JOHN MAJOR and Albert Reynolds have made a historic declaration, the strength of which is rooted in its realism. For the Prime Minister and Taoiseach have reflected the hopes of their electorates, a strategy that will prove vital if the agreement is to withstand inevitable - and possibly bloody - attacks in Northern Ireland itself.

As is patently clear, Britain is not prepared to give in to terrorism. Public opinion will not sanction a sell-out. But it also wants the two communities in Northern Ireland to sort the problem out peacefully between themselves, whether that means a united Ireland, continuing union with Great Britain, or something in between. In the Republic, people aspire to Irish unity, but recognise that this is not a realistic option now. They see no gain in achieving unity unless the Protestant community agrees to it.

The declaration embraces these British and Irish viewpoints. Most important, it realistically addresses an overwhelming desire in both countries for peace. Given what is known about the Hume-Adams talks, it echoes important aspects of discussions with Sinn Fein and offers the IRA a genuine option to forsake violence. Britain has made very clear that it has 'no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland', but remains there only to ensure that the will of the majority is respected.

The IRA, which has pursued a morally and politically bankrupt policy, has the chance to break with its past and, through Sinn Fein, to join the constitutional process. For any government to offer terrorists a place at the conference table within three months of a permanent ceasefire is extraordinary. There can be no excuse for Sinn Fein to miss this opportunity. Equally, the republicans must resist pressure to take up arms again in the event that loyalist violence accompanies the negotiation of a settlement.

The Unionist majority should feel reassured by promises that the constitutional status of Northern Ireland will not change without their consent. However, the declaration's tone makes it plain that their historic intransigence is no longer acceptable. The two governments have made a commitment to political dynamism in Northern Ireland that no one group can ignore.

The impasse in Northern Ireland has lasted more than 70 years, since the island was partitioned and Ulster was made the repository of all the issues for which politicians could find no answers. The Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 bought nearly 50 years of peace, but its inconclusiveness also resulted in 25 subsequent years of violent misery. Mr Major has indicated his resolve to bring that treaty up to date, to cater for the aspirations of both communities in Northern Ireland.

Both he and Mr Reynolds face many obstacles. They must be skilled in not alienating James Molyneaux and the Ulster Unionists, who show signs of being more willing to compromise than they were in the Seventies. But the rhetoric of Ian Paisley threatens to fuel Protestant paranoia, and the loyalist paramilitaries represent a threat whose bloody potential has been amply demonstrated.

However, the declaration sketched a framework for a settlement. Now it is, above all, for the IRA to prove it is serious about peace. It is also for the Unionists to show they have no vested interest in conflict.