Peace hopes are not dying, but can be killed

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THE POLITICIANS who killed off the Irish peace process would be committing a horrible crime. Who wishes this or dares to speak of it, yet? Overtly, no one in power. But you could be forgiven for concluding that the process is quietly dying, somehow sinking into the winter mud.

In London, moderate nationalists are dull with foreboding and savagely question the good faith of the British government. The shrewder Unionists, wishing no surrender to nationalism, are blandly, curiously cheerful. In Northern Ireland itself, the stock of the Government has been badly hit by the revelations of deception. In Dublin, the weekend summit was followed by a sombre mood among the Irish Cabinet. There is nothing you can quite put your finger on, no decisive failure. But there is a worrying loss of momentum.

Failure was always likelier than success. There are so many different ways it could happen. Those who prophesy disasters in Northern Ireland, the wrinkled old told-you- so's, have the bloody evidence of history always on their side. But it is not the time to despair or panic, not yet. If the peace process is a long road, then the politicians have designed exit routes for themselves should things go wrong. That being so, we can best assess how things are going by looking at the political costs of different endings.

First, it is possible that the British and Irish governments may not be able to produce a joint declaration of principle about the future of the province. Civil servants were working hard on this yesterday and both sides still seem to think a declaration is more likely than not. It would come not at the Brussels summit, but after that, probably around a week before Christmas.

This declaration would try to balance British neutrality about the eventual constitutional destiny of Northern Ireland with the maximum possible democratic reassurance for the Unionists. The British say they could not become advocates of a united Ireland, but the Irish think they could go further in trying to bring the Northern nationalists in from the cold.

British action for reconciliation would have to be accompanied by an Irish commitment to a referendum renouncing formal constitutional claims over the North. The problem of finding words that keep both Sinn Fein and the Unionists interested only has to be stated to be clear. One senior minister said yesterday, 'the difficulty is the phrasing, because every phrase has its load of history, and every Irish politician knows what that load is'.

A breakdown in these talks would finish the peace process. If the Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds, broke them off (and he was in suspicious mood after the weekend summit) John Major would inevitably point the finger of blame south. He'd done their honest best for peace, but . . . A full reconciliation with Unionism would quickly follow. Ireland's lost opportunity would secure the Conservative parliamentary majority.

But in every other way, the politicians would have been seen to have failed. However they tried to shift the blame, both Mr Major and Mr Reynolds would seem guilty of a lack of imagination. Since the first peace overtures came from the gunmen, could they afford this exit route? It could mean a revived anti- British nationalism in Ireland. The Dublin government would be irate. The IRA would revive. The 'despised, rejected' Sinn Fein would garner more support.

On the Unionist side, though establishment types such as Jim Molyneaux would be content, others would never forget the duplicity of London over the past months. With Mr Molyneaux and Ian Paisley now both old men, the jockeying for succession is becoming noticeable. One tip for the Official Unionist Party crown is David Trimble, the brightest of the contenders and one of the MPs most disturbed about recent revelations. Mr Trimble is no softie - he was a supporter of the hardline Vanguard Party in the Seventies - and his success would not herald a Unionism that moderate Tories would necessarily find easy.

Perhaps aware of the longer-term dangers of failure, the governments are still negotiating hard. Those involved are cautious but not dejected. If they succeed, the next question is whether the principles acceptable to Unionism can be sold to Sinn Fein. Sticks as well as carrots would be employed. The British hope that if Sinn Fein rejected a declaration the Irish government might join them in trying to ostracise the hardline nationalists internationally, while using in tougher measures against the terrorists, including internment. That is not yet on Dublin's agenda. But if the terror began again despite a new start from the governments and, perhaps, a deal on power-sharing between the constitutional parties, this cannot be ruled out.

So to get a joint declaration would have political advantages even if it did not lead to a Sinn Fein ceasefire. It would probably be followed by a referendum removing the Irish claim to the North and perhaps by a cross-party deal on a power-sharing assembly. The democratic politicians would have kept some initiative.

It would be a bad failure of imagination though, to rule out an IRA ceasefire as impossible. Its old determination to pursue a 50-year war if necessary seems to have been undermined by British military doggedness and by the terrible effect of that terrorist war on all the Ulster communities. Politicians can only do so much to tip terrorists towards a settlement - there is no easy deal dependent purely on London or Dublin. But the governments have not yet achieved what they ought to be able to: a constitutional declaration that keeps the peace momentum going. It's their high duty. For peace processes don't 'die'. They are killed. And if this one is lost, those responsible will find no safe house from history.

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