Pause for peace

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 20 April, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 20 April, 1999, 12:00am

Peace plans are not making much headway in these troubled times. Even the Northern Ireland Good Friday agreement has ground to a halt on the seemingly intractable problem of the surrender of weapons by the Irish Republican Army.

Unless last-ditch efforts by Britain's Tony Blair and his Irish counterpart Bertie Ahern can break the impasse, the only solution will be to put formal talks on hold until the autumn to give all parties a breathing space. Delay brings a risk of further trouble, particularly when tensions are raised by the seeming failure to clinch the agreement. But the final steps to the setting up of a power-sharing executive for the province were always going to be the hardest. This is the point when decisions on the thorniest issues have to be taken but when the hard men on both sides feel they have made all the concessions that can be asked of them.

Yet conclusion of the agreement is a hair's-breadth away. It is now so advanced that the prospect of renewed conflict is inconceivable. There is too much at stake for all sides. Ordinary people have had a taste of what it is like to walk in the streets without fear for the first time in decades.

Sinn Fein has only to reach out its hand to solve the problem with one last, definitive move toward the rejection of violence. It must persuade the IRA to begin decommissioning weapons.

All that is required is a token gesture, involving a few guns. Without that, David Trimble, who will be First Minister of the province, cannot hold together the uneasy alliance of loyalists which includes its own band of zealots. However, the IRA will not budge from the Good Friday terms, which merely suggested an end date for decommissioning, and did not specify it should begin before power-sharing.

At this juncture, it is hard to see any solution emerging from the Downing Street talks. But all sides know that there is no going back to the old ways. It is a question of which has the morale courage to make the last concession. If Mr Trimble persuades outlawed loyalist groups to hand over their guns, it might clear the way for a gesture from the IRA. That does not seem much to ask in return for a real voice in the future of the province.