Not everything on the political landscape in the North is bleak. The meeting yesterday near Belfast between the leaders of the SDLP and the Ulster Unionist Party is clear evidence that a determination to keep the political process in motion is shared by the two largest and most representative organisations. Both parties are under pressure from the increasing radicalisation in the community during the summer, and - with the Alliance Party - carry a large part of the burden of keeping common sense alive.

As Sir Patrick Mayhew said yesterday before meeting Mr Spring in Dublin, there is no alternative to negotiation. The upsurge of hatred and alienation is a route leading to conflict and fresh barriers of resentment and fear. This week has seen three further examples of how the mindless gods of violence sweep everything before them the bloody end of Hugh Torney, one of the murderous leaders of the INLA; the death threat to Billy Wright as the result of a loyalist split, and the rabble rousing involvement of the Rev William McCrea at a support rally in Portadown on Wednesday night; and, the same evening, the angry scenes in east Belfast when Cliftonville supporters were prevented from making their way to a football match with Crusaders. These three events are only the latest landmarks in a terrifying succession of incidents that have pushed politics to the margins.

They have also created a general mood of scepticism about the whole venture of negotiating peace that must be countered if the less radical political parties are to claim a position of leadership. This will not be easy for Mr Trimble, the UUP leader, whose party reflects the entire range of unionist perception, from conciliatory leanings to red necked loyalism. His own attitudes are uncertain as the events of the summer have re emphasised, but he has considerable negotiating skill and is a key figure in any assessment of the possibility of re establishing constructive dialogue between the parties.

There are other, more worrying uncertainties. Mr McCrea's foolish and emotional speech in Portadown raises the question of whether, by aligning himself with a paramilitary faction, he has not cast doubt on the DUP's qualifications to take part in political talks - ironically, just when that party's leader, the Rev Ian Paisley, has called for the exclusion of the loyalist parties because of the death threat to Mr Wright. But far from resolving the problems surrounding the political process, his action has only helped to deepen them and make them more intractable.

There are, it must be admitted, more reasons to fear a resumption of paramilitary violence than hope of a new commitment to rationality and compromise. The North is paying the price of generations of aimless confrontation in which the grotesque posturing of Mr McCrea, rather than reason, has been the easy, typical response to challenge. There has always been room for cheap ambition masquerading as a voice of democratic opinion. A large part of the current tragic impasse results from the need to create a new political culture which does not depend on evoking nameless fears, while at the same time summoning up the necessary political logic to negotiate a workable agreement that will be generally acceptable.

At this unsure point, the role of Dublin and London is of overwhelming importance for the future course of the talks. Mr Spring acknowledged yesterday that "at all times, irrespective of difficulties, both governments have to work together to make the progress necessary". It is the side qua non until the political parties in the North assume effective leadership. Unfortunately, the governmental prop of co operation and trust has often been lacking when it has been most needed. Yet both governments share a vested interest, above everything else, in ending the cycle of hatred and bitterness.