HOW much do the people of Northern Ireland love the peace of the last six months?
The release yesterday by the British and Irish governments of a ``framework document'' for a settlement in Northern Ireland puts that question squarely in the hands of the 900,000 Protestants and 600,000 Catholics who live there. As British Prime Minister John Major said in announcing the plan, ``We seek to help peace, but only the people of Northern Ireland can deliver it.''
The road ahead is difficult, to say the least. But forward is where all eyes must stay riveted. The harsh early criticism of the document by hard-line unionists must be weathered. To that end, the British government will distribute thousands of copies of the document directly to Northern Irish households, so that people can judge it for themselves.
Mr. Major made a crucial concession to unionists when he said that the framework plan need not be the exclusive vehicle for future talks. This will allow a rival document put forward by the Ulster Unionist Party to be discussed, a move that might be enough to get them to the table. The danger, of course, is that by broadening the basis for negotiations no coherent way forward will emerge.
The Unionist plan leaves out any cross-border coordination between a proposed new Northern Ireland assembly and the Irish Parliament. This is the most controversial point for unionists, who see it as too much of a first step toward a united Ireland.
But the apparently insolubility of this aspect of the talks need not prevent progress. Peace advocates on both sides should stress the positives: the agreement that the Irish government will give up its constitutional claims to Northern Ireland; that any plan for Northern Ireland will be determined by the people there, not London or Dublin; that any future Northern Ireland assembly will protect minority rights; and that a ``bill of rights'' will be drawn up to protect each community's culture and religious heritage.
It is now incumbent on responsible leaders on all sides to rally to the document. The goal should be, as moderate republican John Hume has said for some time now, ``not a united Ireland, but an agreed Ireland.''
More than ever, as Mr. Hume has said before, it is the time to ``Spill sweat, not blood.''