Don't get depressed; just see the `big picture' in Northern Ireland

Mr Blair's greatest strength, and Northern Ireland's greatest hope, is his policy of devolution
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THE BREAKDOWN of the peace process is the lowest moment in Tony Blair's premiership. He has discovered, as all prime ministers do at some point, the limits of his own power. There will be fewer jokes about his ability to walk on water from now on. Normally in Britain, newish prime ministers discover their political frailties when they collide with an underperforming economy. It has taken the nightmare of Northern Ireland for Mr Blair to recognise the limits of his own persuasive charms.

He has spent more time on Northern Ireland than any other issue, but what is left of his Herculean labours now? Even Mo Mowlam's plea for "no recriminations" in her Commons statement yesterday is being ignored. Privately, ministers are furious with the Conservatives who tabled amendments with the Unionists to the doomed legislation while simultaneously proclaiming their support for the Good Friday Agreement. If the Conservative/Unionist amendments had been passed, ministers point out, they would have alienated other parties, making the Good Friday Agreement impossible to implement.

The Unionists are furious with Mr Blair who, in their short-sighted view, tried to bounce them into a deal which they could not accept. An angry Seamus Mallon has called for David Trimble to resign, having quit himself. Sinn Fein are furious with both the Government and the Unionists. At the end of the week in which the peace process was meant to reach its glorious fruition, there has been an outbreak of fury all round.

Even so, I am less pessimistic than ministers and MPs, many of whom were deeply demoralised and angry yesterday. More than ever before, Mr Blair needs to tear himself away from the fruitless pursuit of the minutiae of this process and grasp his fabled "big picture". Normally I am suspicious when the word comes out from Downing Street that ministers are being urged to focus on the "big picture" for the domestic agenda. It tends to signal a round of vacuous speeches on social justice and no policy detail. But on Northern Ireland the reverse is the case. We have had policies coming out of our ears. It is to the big picture that Mr Blair must turn, and from which he, and the rest of us, can derive some cause for optimism.

For Mr Blair remains infinitely better placed than his Conservative predecessors, or indeed his potential Conservative successor, to carve out a deal on Northern Ireland. This is not just because he has a secure majority and a parliamentary party that takes a more pragmatic view than some of the Conservative hardliners, although both of these are formidable weapons. His greatest strength, and Northern Ireland's best hope, is that he has delivered devolution for other parts of the United Kingdom.

When John Major offered devolved power to Belfast, he did so while warning that devolution elsewhere would break up the United Kingdom. For Mr Blair, an executive sitting in Belfast would fit into a pattern of government already established in Edinburgh and Cardiff. In the longer term, this is a better trump card than any other. Under Mr Major, a devolved Northern Ireland executive would have been an anomaly. Under Mr Blair, the lack of a devolved executive is the anomaly.

All those narrow-minded politicians who failed to make the leap this week will be able to compare their own impotent positions with those of their Scottish and Welsh counterparts. The Unionist MPs, having rejected the option of exerting real power in Northern Ireland, will sit on a bench in a landslide parliament at Westminster.

A local councillor in Belfast has more power to affect the daily lives of people in Northern Ireland than a Unionist MP at Westminster. While the ruling parties in Edinburgh make decisions on matters such as Health and Education, David Trimble and his colleagues will be irrelevant lobby fodder in a House of Commons in which the Government is able to pull all the strings.

But there is a model there also for Sinn Fein. Devolution has breathed fresh life into the Scottish Nationalists. Earlier this year, it looked as if they might win more seats in the new parliament than any other party. Even now, in opposition, the Nationalists have a much more significant role than before. They can flex their voting muscles in the Scottish parliament to prevent Labour from always getting its way. If student tuition fees are not imposed in Scotland, it will be partly down to the votes of the nationalist SNPs. The SNP has achieved more by political campaigning than the bombs and bullets of the IRA have ever done. What is more, Sinn Fein was being offered an even greater influence in the Executive, which now appears to be so vulnerable, than the SNP exerts in Edinburgh.

The establishment of a Scottish parliament and the Welsh Assembly has been accomplished in a practical, business-like way. As Blair makes clear in a way that infuriates some of the evangelists in Scotland, it is the Westminster parliament - so important in the minds of Unionists - which is sovereign. That is why William Hague misread the spirit and practical consequences of devolution in his speech last night, in which he subtly tried to fan the flames of English nationalism. For neither Scottish, nor Welsh nationalism, was invoked in the build up to devolution. Indeed, devolution in Scotland acted as a counter to Scottish nationalism. The break up of the United Kingdom would have been more likely without the devolved parliament, which still functions to a remit determined by Westminster.

It has not caused great bitterness in England, which is used to being governed in a way that is far from scientific at the best of times. (There is no greater anomaly than the electoral system itself to which the Conservatives are especially attached.) Hague would be on stronger ground in terms of the English vote, if he raised the fact that Scotland gets more public money than England. Yet entering the next election under the banner "Less Money For The Scots" is unlikely to raise the tally of Scottish Conservative MPs which currently stands at nil.

Much more significant for the future of Northern Ireland is the wider context of the Hague speech last night. For he himself acknowledged that devolution was here to stay. His party's U-turn on the issue reflects the permanence of the reforms. Politicians in Belfast should note that there will be no going back, even under the Conservatives, to one dominant parliament at Westminster. Indeed, Hague suggests he would devolve power even more, so that England acquired its own distinct voice.

Where would Northern Ireland fit into such an arrangement? The more the politicians reflect in Northern Ireland on this changed political situation, comparing it with their self-imposed impotence, the more they will want some power of their own.

Steve Richards is political editor of the `New Statesman'