Leading Article: The shift from bomb to ballot box

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THE JOURNEY to peace in Northern Ireland has required many necessary evils. It was evil to negotiate with terrorists, but it had to be done. It was evil for a minister in a democratic government to visit the Maze prison and talk to killers, but it had to be done. It was evil to release early some terrorist prisoners convicted of lesser offences, but it had to be done. And it was evil to let out the murderers of the Balcombe Street Four to be acclaimed as returning heroes, albeit just for the day, by the Sinn Fein conference in Dublin yesterday. But it was necessary.

These are, let us remind ourselves, the gang who murdered at least 16 people. Some of them admitted to the Guildford and Woolwich bombings in 1974. Wild cheering went on for more than 10 minutes with delegates, many in tears, stamping their feet and roaring their approval. Lord Tebbit, his quill dipped in acid, remarked that the Krays should have joined the IRA. There is some justice in that, but no understanding. If fewer people are killed as a result of the Good Friday Agreement, then the compromises made by the British and Irish governments will be justified.

Yesterday's show of emotion by Sinn Fein was a necessary part of securing the firmest possible republican endorsement of the Agreement. It was not pleasant to hear Gerry Adams praise and honour the Balcombe Street gang, but it was part of shifting the psychology of the movement from bomb to ballot box. It jarred to hear Mr Adams describe Sinn Fein as a party of "Protestants and Dissenters" when its military wing for so long lent its name to sectarian hatreds. But what mattered yesterday was not just that Sinn Fein endorsed the Good Friday Agreement but that it changed its constitution in order to take up seats in the new Northern Ireland assembly. In order to do that, its representatives have to renounce violence in categoric and permanent terms. Let us turn from past evils, then, and look forward to the future with hope.