Tony Blair has new ideas for Northern Ireland. He will need them to steer clear of the pitfalls
A Few weeks before Christmas, Sinn Fein's Mitchel McLaughlin slipped unnoticed into a discreet office building at 7 Millbank,Westminster, for a meeting with Roger Stott, a well-connected Labour backbencher. The Sinn Feiner carried a message for the party's high command: since Sinn Fein is working to renew the IRA ceasefire, don't make it harder for the the IRA's political wing to rejoin the peace process.

A year after the IRA ended its ceasefire with the bomb at Canary Wharf, such life as is still left in the peace process is of this order. Intermediaries talking to middle men about what might happen after the British general election. In theory, talks grind on in Belfast. The reality is that the peace process is in limbo. No one expects any progress before John Major, the Prime Minister, names the date.

Sir Patrick Mayhew, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, has become a disconsolate figure, pondering how best to wind up the negotiations in the next two weeks. The last year has been a political tragedy for Sir Patrick, who accepts in private that his efforts have failed. He steps down at the election and his successor is not expected to be another Tory. But is the Labour Party capable of breathing new life into the peace process?

Tony Blair has carefully repositioned party policy on Northern Ireland over the last three years, making himself more acceptable to the nine Ulster Unionist MPs than his predecessors. Moreover, the Labour leader is now letting slip the intriguing news that he has his "own ideas" for the future of the peace process.

LABOUR has travelled far over Northern Ireland since the early 1980s when the pace was set by the "troops out" faction, then riding high. Even under John Smith, who had no truck with that kind of political suicide, Unionist hostility and suspicion were acute, especially about Kevin McNamara, the Northern Ireland spokesman, who was seen by Unionists as a pro-nationalist.

When Mr Blair appointed Mo Mowlam to that job, both policy and style changed dramatically. Ms Mowlam is plain-speaking, with a tactile manner that can verge on the flirtatious. MPs recall fondly the sight of Ms Mowlam conversing with an arm around James Molyneaux, the septuagenarian bachelor and ex-Unionist leader. MPs jest about Mo practising a mild form of sexual harassment. "Since Unionist MPs tend to be middle-aged, and rather grey, they were flattered by her attention," says one MP.

There were overt political gestures too. Mr Blair said he would not act as a "persuader" for a united Ireland. Ms Mowlam spoke in the constituency of Willie Ross, one of the most conservative Unionist MPs, and became the first Labour spokesperson to attend the Ulster Unionists' annual conference. Mr Blair had a stand-up row with John Hume, leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, about Labour's bipartisan position on Ulster issues.

A year-long honeymoon was based on the absence of Mr McNamara, and was unlikely to last, and the turning point in the Labour-Unionist relationship was the election in 1995 of David Trimble as leader. Younger, media-friendly and more dynamic than his predecessor, Mr Trimble was seen as a man who might break the traditionally defensive mind-set of Unionism. But there was a down side: "Jim Molyneaux was almost never on TV, but he could duck and weave behind the scenes and could finesse things. Trimble, by contrast, is up front," says one Unionist source. Occasionally his temper has got the better of him; he has savaged Mayhew within earshot of his colleagues in the lobby of the House of Commons.

Internal jealousies mean that Mr Trimble has had to mind his back, shoring up his personal support among Ulster Unionists, in particular at the time of the Drumcree march last year which left the peace process in tatters.

Now he makes no secret of his growing reservations about Ms Mowlam. Unionist sources speculate that a Labour government would be better off with someone like Jack Cunningham at the Northern Ireland Office. One prominent Unionist critic says: "Much as I like Mo, there are times when her mouth operates before her brain."

She angered Unionists last December when she declared that the status quo in the province is "not an option". And her stress on the importance of "parity of esteem" between the two traditions raises deep-seated fears. To Unionists this is shorthand for an attack on the symbols of the British state: the renaming of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the removal of the Union flag from sensitive areas.

But Labour embraces a wide spectrum of views on Ireland, with unionists and nationalists represented much more evenly than in the Conservative Party. One group, called Democracy Now, claiming the backing of 50 Labour MPs including pro-Unionists like Kate Hoey, is campaigning for the party to organise in Northern Ireland, at the expense of the predominantly Roman Catholic SDLP.

Others are sympathisers with a united Ireland, and include senior figures like John Prescott, the deputy leader, and Clare Short. Then there are the Scots. Almost all Scottish MPs have members of both communities in their constituencies, and both are easily upset. "The most common feeling about Ireland," said one Scottish Labour MP, "is to stay about 100 miles away from the issue. We put it into the same mental category as talking about religion."

SO WHERE does this leave a Blair government? Pessimists fear that containment will be the priority - this is known as the minimalist or "Roy Mason option". But senior Labour politicians reject this possibility, arguing that Mr Blair will press hard for a settlement. The Labour leader has many links with the island of Ireland: his wife is Roman Catholic with Irish antecedents, his mother was a Donegal Protestant. At Christmas the Labour leader holidayed in west Cork (with Sir David Puttnam).

Once in 10 Downing Street, Mr Blair can dust off "confidence-building measures" which are party policy, such as the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into British law, enshrining rights to people of both traditions, and reforms of the police complaints system. Crucially, Mr Blair may not be dependent on Ulster Unionists, as John Major is.

Without setting terms for Sinn Fein rejoining the peace process, an IRA ceasefire will be difficult to achieve, but a post-election ceasefire is not out of the question, and an initiative of some description is expected - from Mr Blair himself, or from the parties in Northern Ireland or, failing that, from George Mitchell, the American ex-senator who is chairing the Belfast-based talks. The continuing interest of the US administration may be an advantage to Mr Blair rather than the nagging irritation it has been for the Tories.

But inevitably with Northern Ireland, there is a down side too. The Conservatives may be in no mood to reciprocate Labour's bipartisan stance. Several of the right-wing contenders for the Conservative leadership have staked out a tough Unionist position in Cabinet, most notably the Home Secretary, Michael Howard.

There is always the possibility of an IRA "spectacular" which might provoke the end of the loyalist paramilitary ceasefire and plunge the province into turmoil. Then there is the summer's marching season, which is likely to pose one of the first big tests for an incoming Labour government. Already Drumcree is expected to provide a more dramatic forum this year than last. Mr Trimble, the local MP, will feel obliged to lead the defence of his constituents' right to march.

Even if Mr Blair moved swiftly to set up the commission recommended by the North report to arbitrate over marches, that may not help. One well-informed observer says: "The Unionists would use the occasion to test whatever structures are in place, the more so if those are new."

Labour's top people are not innocents abroad. The Blair office, at least, has taken one of John Major's observations to heart. "With Ireland," said one key player last week, "it's often two steps forward, and one step back. And sometimes it's the other way around."