Leading article: Yes, Ms Mowlam, enter the Maze - and try to find a way out of the impasse

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Mo Mowlam's decision to visit the Maze prison to talk to convicted murderers so astonished the BBC's Ireland Editor that he described it as "staggering" in a news report. This sudden intrusion of tabloid adjectival excess into the corporation's sober and careful reporting was one way, at least, of marking a historic moment. What he meant was that this was something so far outside the tramlines of Northern Ireland's assumptions that he had run out of words with which to describe it. In a region well used to the demands of extreme language to name various forms of killing and other brutality, he was rendered inarticulate by Ms Mowlam's political quickstep.

What he could not say was: "A Cabinet minister, going to plead with jailed terrorists to maintain their support for the ceasefire?" Of course, she says she will not be pleading, but the truth is that the Secretary of State is treating people convicted of terrible crimes as legitimate partners in the peace process. Any right-thinking person should be brought up short by that: it runs against all the assumptions of liberal democracy.

But there was a dissonance between the BBC's language of the "unprecedented", the "brave" and the "desperate", and the quietness of the response from all the parties gathered around (and about) the peace talks table. Sinn Fein, the IRA's political wing, welcomed Ms Mowlam's decision, although she was going in to the segregated Maze to talk to the other side. David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist leader, said he could hardly criticise it, because he had just been in the Maze himself to talk to the loyalist paramilitaries.

The other thing the BBC could not say was that Ms Mowlam is absolutely right. The principle of not talking to terrorists was abandoned, rightly, by John Major's government. It remains a condition for taking part in peace talks that the parties must formally renounce violence. But prisoners wield much of the power in paramilitary organisations on both sides of the sectarian divide. Following the murder in the Maze of Billy Wright, the Loyalist Volunteer Force leader, there is no doubt that it is on the loyalist prisoners that leverage now needs to be applied if the peace process is to carry on.

And this newspaper makes no apology for agreeing with Ms Mowlam that the peace process is "the only show in town". We seem to have upset The Daily Telegraph by being rather brisk with its silly and shrill demand for Ms Mowlam to resign over the Wright killing. Yesterday, it took this paper to task for emphasising the single word "process", which it regards as an attempt to mystify appeasement of terrorism. Well, we do set much store by the word. In the phrase "peace process" it may be that the second word is the more important. So long as the representatives of Northern Ireland's people are talking to each other, however tetchily, there is some prospect of the habit of not killing each other growing.

Of course, there is a logical incompatibility between the aspirations of republicans and unionists, which can never satisfactorily be resolved. But that should not mean closing our minds and hiding behind that cynical and contemptible phrase, "an acceptable level of violence" - which is, frankly, the only alternative. And, of course, it may well be that this peace process will founder; that Ms Mowlam's boldness will go unrewarded. But meanwhile fewer people are being killed, and greater understanding is being fostered, than if we listened to the "anti-appeasers" of the English right wing.

It is accepted, especially by Ms Mowlam herself, that she is taking a risk in going to the Maze today - though the real risk is simply that she has set a precedent in the event of failure. If the peace process collapses and the killing resumes, there is a danger that any bunch of deluded murderers will think they can summon the Secretary of State to their cells to talk terms.

But she is right to go because there is a feeling among unionists in general, and those who have in the past resorted to violence in particular - whether or not it is justified, is irrelevant - that their community is not being heard. All the attention in the early part of the peace process has been focused on Sinn Fein, many of whose negotiators have served prison sentences for terrorist offences. She knows that, and that is why she is being, not merely appearing to be, even-handed.

It is, as Suzanne Moore comments on the opposite page, one of Ms Mowlam's political strengths that, as a woman, she may find it easier to break out of the tramlines of Northern Ireland politics and disrupt expectations. But there is also a downside, which is that much of the unionist hostility to her is born of chauvinism. The vocal supporters of hard-line unionism in the English press also tend to tread on the edge of cheap sexism. She must press on regardless. Let us hope that the hard men of Ulster will respond in a more responsible manner than London's little unionists.