Leading Article: Time for Sinn Fein's answers

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THE Government's response yesterday to Sinn Fein's 20 questions represents a real attempt to address the issues raised by republicans. The replies are more serious than anticipated, given the way officials have played them down. The tone is polite rather than acerbic. Sir Patrick Mayhew, in agreement with the Irish government, has provided answers suggesting that neither Dublin nor London has given up on the peace process, despite their growing pessimism.

That said, there is nothing in this document that would make an Orangeman stumble. It does little more than reiterate in a positive way last December's Downing Street Declaration, previous ministerial statements and existing legislation. If any fantasists in the republican movement expected hints about troop withdrawals and a timescale for ending partition, they have been disappointed.

There will be much pedantic debate surrounding the description of this exercise. Ministers rightly rebut any suggestion that they are being drawn into negotiations in advance of a permanent end to the killing. But Sinn Fein would have difficulty claiming that Sir Patrick's response does not meet its request for 'clarification'. In other words, the ball is in the republican court. Gerry Adams has received his answers. The pressure is now on him to provide a few in return.

Mr Adams has much ground to make up. The Downing Street Declaration was a major statement of intent, towards which the Sinn Fein leadership has failed to take an imaginative attitude. The party's president has shown himself unwilling to give it positive backing. In the absence of clear guidance from the top, the republican movement has steered away from peace and towards maintaining the status quo.

Mr Adams has been given another chance to show some leadership. There have been other opportunities. His visit to the United States demonstrated what life might be like as a legitimate political leader. Likewise, Albert Reynolds, the Irish prime minister, has engaged in correspondence with him. So far, Mr Adams has abstained from leading republicanism in a historic break from violence. In his absence, militants such as Bernadette McAliskey have attacked the declaration and political progress has been left to the mercy of a rising tide of violence from loyalists and the IRA.

Indications from Sinn Fein suggest that nothing will be forthcoming from them on the declaration until the end of June, after the European elections. This delay is unforgivable. Every week brings further death and destruction to the people of Northern Ireland.

The Downing Street Declaration stands as a powerful inter-governmental statement about the province's future, irrespective of Sinn Fein's attitude. But Mr Adams must appreciate that moments when peace can be achieved in Ireland are few and can pass suddenly. His lack of urgency is disdainful of human life. It threatens a fragile process which, once destroyed, could take a long time to begin again.