An Untimely Disclosure

THE latest crisis in Northern Ireland demands that the Protestants and Roman Catholics who have struggled and sacrificed to win the current cease-fire stand firm for progress and recommit themselves to the cause of peace.

The ill-advised decision by the Times of London newspaper to publish portions of a draft of a crucial ``framework document'' being prepared by the British and Irish governments has threatened not only to derail the peace process but possibly to bring down John Major's Conservative government in Britain as well.

The document, under preparation for many months, is to contain talking points for a gathering by all the legitimate parties to discuss the question of Northern Ireland's political future. The leaked excerpts, presumably provided by someone opposed to the peace process, mention the possibility of establishing some new authorities that would take an all-Ireland approach, in areas such as agriculture, health, education, and relations with the European Union.

Publication of these ideas inflamed Protestant Unionists, who already feared that the two governments will weight any future talks on the side of a merger with the Republic of Ireland, something they adamantly oppose. Since Prime Minister Major counts on nine Ulster Unionist Party members to maintain a slim majority in Parliament, he cannot alienate them. Thus he leapt in front of TV cameras Wednesday to reassure unionists that the document will not be ``a blueprint to impose unity in all Ireland'' or betray ``the promises we have made.''

In the midst of this crisis, there is an opportunity. Now is the time for former combatants on both sides to seize back the initiative by handing over their arms and explosives, a move that would underline the notion that the peace process is inexorable and irreversible.

We respect the right of the Times, in a free and open society, to print the excerpts.

It argues that it did no harm, that Protestant unionists would be just as opposed to the ideas in the document whenever they were made public. But in such delicate matters, timing can be as important as substance. By denying the governments the chance to introduce the document on their own schedule, the paper has made a mess of the peace process.

Now it is up to those who yearn for peace to calmly clean it up and keep moving forward.

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