History shows that a Tory leader plays the orange card at his peril

Once again, Mr Hague has sought to make Ulster a party issue on the British mainland
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THE ORANGE card is a temptation to which many Tory politicians have yielded while in Opposition over the past 150 years. Yesterday's fierce attack on the Prime Minister's "betrayal of trust" in Northern Ireland in The Daily Telegraph, coming the day after that paper had drawn a truly bizarre comparison between Mr Blair and the men of Munich, certainly makes it look as if Mr Hague is following suit. By breaking more dramatically with bi-partisanship than at any time since the general election, Mr Hague has, if nothing else, sought to make Northern Ireland once again an issue of conflict in the party politics of the British mainland, something it has only rarely been since Edwardian times.

There is, of course, quite another way of looking at it. This is a highly uncomfortable moment for the British government, certainly the worst since the agonies which preceded the agreement on Good Friday 1998. By its unmistakably fascist expulsions, punishment beatings and murders - whether in Dungannon, Belfast or elsewhere in Northern Ireland - the IRA has certainly flouted the requirements of any ceasefire worthy of the name as defined by the Prime Minister during the referendum on the agreement last year. Then, it was intended to avoid, among other things, "bombings, killings and beatings, claimed or unclaimed".

Such acts revolt civilised opinion far beyond the ranks of the Tory faithful. It is therefore a curious kind of free society in which the leader of the Opposition cannot point out these plain facts and suggest that it is time ministers imposed some sanctions on the republicans, including a halt - albeit a temporary one - in the release of IRA prisoners. What could be more measured or logical than that?

There is nevertheless more than a whiff of Bonar Law in Mr Hague's behaviour. Mr Hague, is not, of course, proposing an unconstitutional, illegal revolt against the elected British government of the day by the majority population of Ulster, as his distinguished predecessor did. He is nevertheless - and without the Northern Irish antecedents which made "Home Rule" one of the few issues Bonar Law really cared about - showing every sign of seeking to exploit the Irish question to advance his defeated, party's fortunes. Without straining the parallel too far, Bonar Law's campaign also came at a time when the other great issue of the day (tariff reform then, Europe now) saw the party pursue a policy which had (mostly) united the its own ranks but failed woefully to appeal to the country.

Mr Hague was careful yesterday to reaffirm his support for the Good Friday agreement. But the use of words like "betrayal" and the personalisation of his attack on Mr Blair leave no doubt whatever that he intended his words to resonate on this side of the Irish Sea every bit as much as in Northern Ireland. Which, thanks to the prominence given to his piece by The Daily Telegraph, it duly has. In this he may have been fortified by the fact that for the first time, at least in the memory of younger Tory MPs, party supporters have been ringing up and writing to express hostility to what they perceive to be the Government's appeasement of terrorists. Indeed, he may have worried that if he did not speak out, he would be considered weak among his own constituency - the one which, this side of an election no Tory seriously expects to win, he understandably cares most about.

All this is very human. Whether it is also statesmanship is another matter. It is not clear that Mr Hague consulted John Major before publishing his article. Relations between the two are said to be not of the warmest at present. But there is no doubt that if these words had been uttered by Mr Major, as the first real architect of the peace process, they would have carried much more weight. One reason why Mr Major might hesitate to go along with Mr Hague's analysis is that he knows better than most that talking with the IRA political wing while punishment attacks are being carried out is not exactly new. In the first IRA ceasefire, which ended with the Canary Wharf bomb in 1996, there were actually more punishment beatings (185) carried out by republicans than there have been to date in the current one (114). True, republican punishment shootings were not a feature of the first ceasefire, as they have been of this (81 on the loyalist side and 72 on the republican). But murders reliably attributed to the IRA were five then compared with nine this time.

The fact that Downing Street - highly sensitive about what it sees as the breakdown of bi-partisanship - hastily disclosed these figures yesterday does not make them wrong. Peacemaking in Northern Ireland is a messy business, with fewer moral absolutes than Mr Hague, if not Mr Major, realises.

But Mr Blair's annoyance at Mr Hague's intervention apparently goes further than that. He believes that, unlike Mr Hague's Tory party, Labour, at several points before the general election, could have joined forces with the Ulster Unionists and brought down the tottering Major government over any one of a number of messy accommodations with the real world - not least the fact that for a long time it kept its contacts with the republicans totally secret.

The Tory argument is that with a greener, more nationalist inclined, background it would never have done so. There are, however, two answers to that. Mr Blair very publicly abandoned that heritage soon after he was elected leader, by ending its aspiration for a united Ireland and leaving the province's future to a majority of its people. Also, what better way would there have been of forcing an election and proving that Labour was a transformed party of law and order?

But whatever the plausibility of this scenario, Mr Hague remains open to the mercifully unusual charge of playing British politics with Northern Ireland. You have only to ask whether Mr Hague's intervention - heartening as it will be to those Unionists who want to boycott the forthcoming review by George Mitchell - has helped the chance of an autumn settlement ( for which Northern Ireland hungers more than ever). Or would it have been more helpful to have left it to the UUP leader David Trimble to handle his own, fiendishly delicate problems, in his own way.

Mr Hague is perfectly entitled to take a different view. But it was an earlier Tory than either Mr Hague or Andrew Bonar Law who reflected just a little uneasily on the disadvantages, as well as the electoral benefits, of unleashing the desperately intractable Irish question into the cockpit of mainland party politics. In 1886, Lord Randolph Churchill wrote of Gladstone, another centre-left Prime Minister who devoted much of his energy to finding a solution to the Irish question: "I decided some time ago that if the G.O.M [Gladstone] went for Home Rule the Orange card would be the one to play. Please God, it may turn out to be the ace of trumps and not the two."