When even a touch of vision would not go amiss


"US Pressure on IRA"; "Adams attacks Bruton"; "UVF Hard Line on Ceasefire"; "Trimble Demand on Arms". Looking at the reports of the peace process over the past few weeks, one can't help wondering whether language isn't a major problem. Perhaps those involved might make more progress if they looked to the skills and style of professional mediators, talked more in terms of persuasion, conciliation and the need to reason together, rather less about pressure and coercion.

One lesson we should have learnt from experience. Whatever about Sinn Fein, the IRA is not going to be impressed by threats of renewed political isolation if it fails to reinstate the ceasefire. It has resisted such pressure - moral, military, political - for more than 25 years and takes considerable pride in that fact.

It wasn't pressure that brought about the original ceasefire. That happened because John Hume - joined later by the Irish Government and Irish America - took the advice prescribed by Aesop. He decided to bring Sinn Fein in from the cold to the comparative warmth of political debate, enabling Gerry Adams to persuade the IRA that an alternative strategy was available.

The situation is very similar just now. It's been noticeable that John Hume, of all the politicians involved, has avoided the language of threat and ultimatum. He knows well that the IRA's bombs in London represent a terrible setback to the peace process and that, even if the ceasefire is reinstated tomorrow, they will still leave a cloud of mistrust hanging over the June 10th talks. But the most urgent task now is to re establish a credible peace by convincing the IRA that the two governments - but particularly London - have a serious commitment to the project.

We will have to wait to see whether John Major's article, published on this page, achieves this objective. On a first reading, it is clear that the words dutifully cover the points raised by the Irish Government. The Prime Minister stresses that it is his government's intention "that these negotiations will be a genuine and serious effort to reach a comprehensive settlement, covering all the issues of concern and acceptable to all concerned."

But, perhaps not surprisingly, there is no sense of any personal engagement, that Mr Major has tried to understand the historical legacy of mistrust harboured by the people to whom this article is primarily addressed, or the scale of potential tragedy that threatens Northern Ireland if peace is not restored. One has the impression of reading a draft carefully negotiated in committee, which is understandable, but even a touch of vision would not have gone amiss.

IT would help greatly - perhaps particularly now if the Prime Minister were prepared to admit publicly that the British, like all parties to the conflict, have made serious mistakes, some of them in the recent past. There are examples to hand, the most obvious being the flawed forensic tests carried out for years at the British government's laboratory at Sevenoaks, which may have led to a number of unsafe convictions in terrorist cases.

In the past, the British authorities have been extremely grudging when mistakes of this kind have come to light, creating the impression that they were more concerned with protecting the good name of British justice than with putting right the harrowing wrongs that have sometimes been done to innocent individuals.

It would signal a clear change in British official attitudes if, on this occasion, the Prime Minister himself were to make it clear that there will be no delay or obstruction in dealing with the cases that may have been affected, among them a number of republican prisoners serving long sentences.

This, in turn, would send a potent political message to those who actually may be able to influence the IRA - the communities living in the nationalist ghettos of the North. The graffiti along the Falls Road are instructive. "Send Home our POWs" often appears alongside a list of names from a particular street. One sees little reference to all party talks, or even to the forth coming elections.

What people living in these streets want most of all is the chance to get on with normal life. There is no appetite for a return to violence. It isn't simply that, over the past 22 months, they have experienced peace and its huge benefits of personal freedom and better economic prospects.

As important, they have begun to see the possibility of quite new and better relationships, political and personal, between the two communities. Catholics in the Falls Road have heard loyalist leaders from the Shankill talk in a way they never knew before. They do not want to go back to the fear, hostility and tribal suspicion of the past, but equally they know that this and worse could lie ahead if the peace is not put firmly back on track.

These changes are evident in some of the candidates and parties who have put themselves up for election to the Forum. In the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition, for example, it is not an issue whether a particular candidate is Catholic or Protestant, or where she stands on the union.

What drives them is the belief that they share many concerns which affect both communities, and a commitment to work this common ground together, rather than fight over disputed territory.

Last Monday night I chanced to see a UTV programme, in which young people aged between 7 and 23 talked about their attitudes to the past and future. This was different to dozens of usually depressingly predictable, similar programmes over the years. These young people were electric with hope and the determination to build a quite different society in Northern Ireland, not in some distant future, but now.

They were also impressively honest about the prejudices which still affected them, how difficult they found it to lay aside what several referred to as "the baggage" of their respective communities, and of the immediate past.

One young man said: "I just want to lose the fear that when I go out people will want to know whether I'm Catholic or Protestant." Several looked forward to tribal identity becoming considered completely irrelevant, perhaps by their children or their children's children. This was rebutted with great firmness by others who want this kind of change to come a great deal more quickly, in time for them to enjoy the benefits.

ON ONE point in his article, John Major is absolutely correct. There is an overwhelming desire for peace among all the people of Northern Ireland. They have enjoyed a new quality of life since the ceasefire and share the hopes for a more generous and tolerant future, so eloquently expressed by these young people. But, for that to happen, the one essential prerequisite is that peace should be secured. That is the real pressure on the IRA.