But there are reasons to believe that these talks - however long and vexatious - may escape the poisonous orthodoxies that have frustrated all previous attempts to reach a settlement. Violence is addictive, but so is peace. A majority of people in both traditions in Northern Ireland, and the vast majority of people in Ireland and Britain, do not want to go back to a low-level, permanent war in these islands. The present British government, though hampered by its tiny parliamentary majority, needs a success in Ulster. Mr Major, when not distracted by his right wing, has shown intermittent courage and imagination in pursuing, in the Irish question, at least one enduring monument for his otherwise unedifying administration.
The US government has taken a forceful, sometimes clumsy interest in the process but has played, on balance, a useful role in assuaging Catholic anxieties. The presence of ex-Senator George Mitchell as chairman of the talks is something all sides ought to welcome. As former Congressional foes have discovered to their cost, Mr Mitchell's soporific exterior camouflages a tough and wily mind, with an enormous capacity for keeping political poker-games in progress.
On the nationalist side of the argument, there remains, undoubtedly, an unreconstructed chunk of opinion that believes, fanatically, in an ultimate tribal victory of Catholic over Protestant. The Docklands bombing was a statement of their continuing presence and strength. All the other participants are right to demand another ceasefire as the price of Sinn Fein's seats at the talks. But it is sometimes forgotten that the Docklands bombing, wicked as it was, has not led to a full-scale resumption of IRA warfare. The pro-negotiation faction in the Republican movement has held the line to that extent; it now seems likely that it will win agreement for another ceasefire, possibly once the Belfast talks have been under way for several days. It is reasonable to be suspicious about Republican sincerity. But there is, for the first time, a willingness in a section of the Sinn Fein-IRA leadership to consider compromise: something that gives the nationalist community a stake in Northern Ireland while preserving, in democratic form, its ultimate aspiration to a united Ireland.
On the Unionist side, there are wildly conflicting signals. But (given a ceasefire) David Trimble's Ulster Unionists have shown a willingness, confirmed again yesterday, to sit down with Sinn Fein to see what talks may bring. Two of the Protestant splinter groups that have emerged in the past year are also ready to enter talks with what in Ulster passes for an open mind.
This leaves the considerable bulk of the Rev Ian Paisley and his Democratic Unionist Party. Mr Paisley, it seems, has always been there, a kind of living Mount Rushmore monument to intransigence. He represents a tribal and fundamentalist determination not just to maintain Ulster as part of the UK, but to maintain a Protestant ascendancy over Catholics, whatever the cost. He played, it is sometimes now forgotten, a leading part in the defeat of the modest moves towards economic and political rights for Catholics in the late Sixties, a defeat that produced nearly 30 years of war. And yet it must be remembered that Mr Paisley represents a genuine and sizable chunk of unionist opinion. The voting in last week's curious election gave him one of his best-ever scores.
No one has a precise blueprint for what the future of Northern Ireland might be, because a precise blueprint is impossible to imagine from where we stand now. The negotiators are entering a labyrinth: it is their duty to keep trying every avenue, look round every corner, until opportunities emerge that no one could foresee.
Nevertheless, it is possible to set out - or recall - the few broad principles without which no settlement will be possible, or lasting.
There can be no change in the status of Northern Ireland as part of the UK without the consent of a majority of the population. This should be formally guaranteed, as part of a settlement, by both Irish and British governments. Equally, straightforward Protestant majority rule has proved to be unworkable. Some form of power-sharing (though a dirty word to many Unionists) is inescapable. There must also be renewed guarantees of economic and educational fair-play for Catholics. There should be some recognition that, for a portion of the population, a united Ireland remains the ultimate goal - but an acceptance that it will only be reached by democratic means. All terrorist weapons must be surrendered as part of a settlement and, if possible, as a token of growing trust, they should be surrendered by increments during the talks.
The hardest part may prove to be the nature and scope of the "cross-border" economic and political institutions foreseen by London and Dublin last year. British officials tend to stress their pragmatic, co-operative nature; Irish nationalists see them as forerunners of all-Ireland institutions.
It is possible - just - to imagine a settlement that encompasses the mainstream unionists and the moderate wing of Republicanism. The mood - and strength - of the Republican diehards remains anyone's guess. It is impossible to imagine any settlement that includes Mr Paisley. Unlike, say, John Hume of the SDLP, whose contribution to progress has been immense, the DUP leader is defined by his refusal to compromise; in the end, the peace process will have to work around him.
But any settlement that leaves a large and embittered minority of either Catholics, or Protestants, would be pointless. Sooner or later, the machinery of violence would be set in motion once again. The trick must be to draw the poison of the extremists of both sides. The aim must be to convince a large majority of Catholics and Protestants that the age-old, visceral desire for the triumph of one over the other can be replaced by a peace that offers both prosperity and a respect for the rights of both communities. All the participants in today's talks, and any others who may join in as the talks continue, deserve a chance to open the road to peace.Reuse content