Shreds of hope remain among the shards of glass

The push for peace came from within Northern Ireland, and we owe it to them to keep going
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So was it wrong to give Gerry Adams the benefit of so many doubts? Does it turn out that, in the end, the wolfish smile and tweed jackets were only light disguise for the wolfman of West Belfast? Once IRA, always IRA? Are those who always mocked the peace process as a republican fraud to be congratulated? And are the peacemakers to be cursed as naive?

Five question-marks in the first paragraph is going it a bit - but feels about right for this week. In London and Belfast, the mood among the politicians I talked to yesterday is desperately darker than at any time since the original ceasefire. There are warnings of carnage to come and political seizure. In Washington and Dublin, many of those who feted Gerry Adams feel sick and betrayed - and, no doubt, more than a little foolish.

And certainly, if you deal with the IRA, you are playing a dangerous game. It may be that there are people in its army council who truly believe that they can continue the peace process with a little judicious bombing - murder the odd Asian shopkeeper in Canary Wharf if you think London ministers are dragging their heels; strew devastation across central Manchester when Adams is excluded from the talks. And so on.

There will be so-called strategists who think that all-party talks can be kick-started, or rather, bomb-started. And after that, when there is a little trouble with the chairman of the sub-committee on electoral systems, or whatever, they can always kill some Liverpudlian commuters, or maim a granny in Bristol, to jolly things along.

This black comedy of a political strategy was, no doubt, given some sustenance by the decision to forge ahead with talks after the first London bombings. But somehow, a second round of attacks changes things entirely. It makes explicit the threat held over the political process in a way which democrats can neither evade nor tolerate.

It may also summon a savage response. Unionist politicians are warning privately that loyalist killers will produce some kind of foul ``spectacular'' if the IRA has really (as they think) returned to war. Then Northern Ireland would slide back - except that, because of the bottled-up frustration of assorted maniacs, things would be even worse.

The pessimists believe this is bound to happen eventually. Some, like Conor Cruise O'Brien, expected it a year ago, and drew detailed word-pictures of how the mayhem would creep back as it became clear that the north would not be forced into a united Ireland. Others went silent, and waited. A few politicians, such as Norman Lamont, warned publicly that the peace process was embroiling the British government in appeasement. But no one wanted to hear them.

If the worst now happens, then lessons will be drawn. It will be said that one should never parley with terrorists; as many in Israel believe too. Next, it will be said that the Irish situation is hopeless - that it has been hopeless since the first dour Presbyterian squires ran Catholic peasants off barley fields, and that it will always be hopeless. Finally, some Tory rightwingers will say that the whole sorry episode shows up Major yet again as a gullible and rather weak politician, dangerously eager for liberal applause.

Each of these lessons should be refuted. It is nonsense to say that one shouldn't ever listen to terrorists; unless you are prepared to, you'll never know when a terrorist is becoming an ex-terrorist. You have to keep trying. It's the burden of democracies to hold out the hand - even if the hand is sometimes bitten off.

To say that the Northern Irish problem is hopeless may sound judicious and worldly-wise from the safe distance of London clubland, but it mentally condemns many thousands of bright, fresh-faced and cheerful fellow citizens to an early death, or to maiming, or bereavement. It wasn't a handful of liberal journalists and naive leaders from outside the province who championed the peace process; it came from within Northern Ireland itself and is desperately wanted by hundreds of thousands of ordinary, apolitical people, many of whom were brought up to hate one another and are now learning new ways.

Major's involvement, sometimes imaginative, sometimes stubborn, wasn't the result of his naivete or his lust for applause, but of a certain openness and courage. He could never move far without the Unionists - not merely because of the parliamentary constraints, but because without them there could be no settlement. In the event, Major took them further than they thought they'd ever go.

As his European beef war gets bogged down, and as his party continues to crumble, the crunching off-track of the peace process is a blow to Major's standing - and surely, if he's flesh and blood, to his morale. But if he is voted out, then Tony Blair will have to go back and pick up his pieces. Trying to draw in Adams and Sinn Fein was a necessary gamble. If it hasn't paid off, someone will have to try a similar gamble with someone else in a few years' time.

Even now, there are shreds of hope. If Adams splits the republican movement and stands aside from the IRA, then the core of violent republicanism will be reduced. Many more people voted for him in the recent elections than can stomach a return to bombs and bullets. It is, I agree, unlikely that he will disown the bloody romanticism of his own past; but anything is possible.

Even if that doesn't happen then David Trimble - now in the strongest position of any Unionist leader for decades - and John Hume, and the rest of the moderates, can still work together and design a new political process for the province. They are changing themselves and by changing themselves, are changing the political weather there too.

So no miracle has happened. So the path to a better Northern Ireland proves slippery, winding and treacherous. But the peacemakers, if not blessed, have to hold together and keep walking it. There is no other way.