Focus: Last week's electrifying turnabout in Ulster politics will not be the last
THREE weeks ago readers of this newspaper voted Mo Mowlam woman of the year, clearly admiring her cheerful, informal stickability and determination in the face of adversity. Tony Blair hugged her for the cameras, and all seemed set fair for the new year.

"Great to see it," confided an old Northern Ireland government hand at the time. "But I can't help reflecting that it's often when a minister's on top of the world that suddenly something awful can happen."

One short week later, we were reporting her refusal to step down in the face of calls for her resignation. Something awful had happened: three INLA prisoners had swarmed over a roof in the Maze prison and shot dead the notorious loyalist killer Billy Wright.

Almost instantly the security crisis spilled over into politics. The Ulster Unionist party turned up the heat, demanding the resignation of Dr Mowlam and senior officials. On the streets, meanwhile, two Catholics were killed in revenge while Wright's group, the Loyalist Volunteer Force, used his funeral to display their muscle by bringing the major town of Portadown to a halt.

A meeting with Tony Blair soothed the Unionist party but within the Maze developments were taking place that threatened to destabilise the whole peace process. One hundred and twenty members of the Ulster Defence Association, one of the two largest loyalist paramilitary outfits, voted to withdraw their support from the talks process.

THIS conjured up a truly appalling vista. The Ulster Democratic Party, the UDA's political wing, plays an important role in the talks, which themselves play a vital function in anchoring the loyalist ceasefire. A UDA withdrawal from talks would open the way for a resurgence of violence, the ending of the loyalist ceasefire, and a huge and potentially fatal crisis for the entire peace process.

Opinions differ on how much of the Unionist and loyalist restlessness was actually an attention-seeking device designed to extract concessions in the talks and on early prison releases. But irrespective of its origins it was clear by mid-week that some in that camp had worked themselves into a genuine lather. It seemed entirely possible that when the talks resumed neither the UDP nor the other para-political party, the Progressive Unionists, would be there.

But Mo Mowlam's extraordinary gesture of going into the Maze H-blocks had an electrifying effect. Even before her arrival UDA prisoners were beaming as they walked round their wings, chuffed beyond measure at the idea of a cabinet minister coming to see them. It was not too surprising that within a couple of hours of her visit they had reversed their stance and approved of the UDP staying in the talks.

At a stroke she had safeguarded the peace process and confirmed her reputation as a minister with a flair for unorthodox but highly effective crisis management: to most she was once again a heroine. At the same time, however, the episode showed how violence and drama can appear without warning, and how easily political calm and equilibrium can be shattered.

The months and years ahead, it can confidently be predicted, will see more such emergencies: the next drama, in fact, could come as early as tomorrow, when the politicians gather in Belfast to resume the multi- party talks. Attention will instantly focus on reports that Tony Blair's expected attempt to kick-start the talks will take the form of putting forward a proposal based on the thinking of the Ulster Unionist party. This is in itself unlikely, given that although the talks have been going on for many months, substantive negotiation has yet to begin. Until the position is clarified, however, a certain amount of heat may be generated.

Almost everyone involved at Stormont views the problem as a triangle with Belfast, London and Dublin as its corners: the talks themselves are organised in three strands to reflect this. But while there is much common ground that any eventual outcome will reflect this basic geometry, there is no agreement at all on the strengths of the various relationships involved.

Nationalists, for example, wish to see as strong Belfast-Dublin links as possible, with a powerful new north-south body to emphasise their analysis of the problem as an Anglo-Irish issue. A new Belfast assembly is a necessary component to provide the Belfast anchorage for such a new constitutional apparatus.

Sinn Fein, as might be expected, will wish to go much further, and will certainly wish to make a full statement of their case for Irish unity before indicating whether they will settle for less. To this end they have been reluctant even to be seen to be discussing the idea of a Belfast assembly.

Like most nationalist figures, Unionists are also presuming that any new settlement will include a new assembly. Most Unionists are also reconciled to the idea of a north-south body, but over the past year have become interested in the idea of combining it with links to the coming devolution to Scotland and Wales, in what has been called a "Council of the Isles".

In other words, the previous idea of a straightforward Belfast-Dublin motorway would become subsumed in a sort of spaghetti junction with roads branching off to Scotland and Wales. In this way Unionists hope that new arrangements will help bind the UK together rather than weaken their links with Britain.

NATIONALISTS have shown some interest in the idea, though crucially they stipulate that a council of the islands should be complementary to a north-south body and is not to be regarded as a substitute for it. Working out the exact relationships between the assembly, the north-south body and a council of the islands is the very stuff of the negotiations ahead.

One nationalist source said flatly yesterday: "The north-south body is the key to reconciling Unionists and nationalists. It is absolutely central - there is not the remotest chance of agreement without it. These reports are selective, one-sided and rather tendentious accounts of what's going on in the background."

The fact that the reports have not been met with denials from Number 10 has not created huge concern in nationalist circles. This is because tomorrow's reopening of talks is regarded as a highly sensitive moment, and it is accepted that London will wish to do nothing that might spark off a last-minute talks boycott by loyalists.

The handling of these reports is thus seen as yet another example of the kind of constant attention and fire-fighting involved in keeping the peace process on track. The months ahead will clearly contain many more political problems such as this. They will also contain more security crises as the assorted small but deadly factions intent on using violence try to knock the whole enterprise off course.