THE AGREEMENT of British Prime Minister John Major and Irish Prime Minister John Bruton on a path to the future for Northern Ireland brings hope to its 1.6 million people. The two governments have posted a timetable for the peace bus to leave the station. Whether Sinn Fein and its bomb-throwing affiliate, the IRA, are on that bus is up to them.
The plan gives Sinn Fein and the IRA two things they wanted. One is a firm date for the start of what will be in effect a constitutional convention, June 10. The other is abandonment of the requirement that the IRA begin to destroy its weapons before Sinn Fein takes part.
The plan gives the Ulster Unionist Party of the Protestant majority its proposal for an election of participants to precede and legitimize the June 10 talks.
Britain needs only four to five weeks to stage an election that will determine the relative strength of the Ulster Unionists and more extreme Democratic Unionists within the Protestant majority. It will apportion representation between the nonviolent Social Democratic and Labor Party (SDLP) and Sinn Fein within the Catholic minority. The SDLP's proposal for Ireland-wide referendums to repudiate violence is officially under consideration.
The plan calls for a week of intense talks about talks starting Monday. These might use the proximity technique that the Dublin government recommended. The plan requires the IRA to proclaim a cease-fire if it wants Sinn Fein to participate. Should the March talks fail to produce agreement (practically speaking, between Ulster Unionists and the SDLP) on the rules for election and the June format, the two governments will impose them.
The speed and determination of this formula should hearten almost everyone. Whether President Clinton allows Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams a visa to visit the U.S. for St. Patrick's Day rituals should depend on his movement's expressed willingness to participate in this sensible, fair and overdue peace process.