The first stages of this process - an end to violence and a framework for new constitutional arrangements - now seem within reach. Unfortunately the two leaders are hesitating. They have downgraded today's encounter from a 'summit' to the first of a series of working meetings because they have been unable to agree on a communique. They are thus running the risk of allowing the impetus of the past few weeks to dissolve as they argue over details.
The time for detail will come. What is needed now is a bold gesture of affirmation designed to make the impetus unstoppable. Everything that needs to be said has already been said at different times in different places. The pieces must only be brought together in a single, solemn statement to create a framework in which the details can be negotiated.
The Irish government has acknowledged the right of Northern Ireland to self-determination, thereby giving the Ulster Unionists a veto for as long as they command a majority. It has also offered to drop its constitutional commitment to Irish unity in the context of a settlement. The British government has renounced any strategic or political interest in Northern Ireland and accepted the principle of Irish unity with the consent of the people of Northern Ireland. The two sides are divided by a quibble over the form of words on Irish unity. Meanwhile, Sinn Fein and the IRA have dropped their insistence on unity as a precondition for ending violence.
Only the Unionist politicians are trying to preserve an unsustainable status quo. It is largely in deference to them that John Major is hesitating. He assumes he must have their support for any deal that is put to the people of Ulster. In tactical political terms he may be right but he could afford to be bolder. He does not need the Unionists' votes at Westminster for any imminent Bill, and he can anyway be sure that they will not be eager to precipitate an election that could bring in a Labour government with even less congenial ideas on Ireland.
In Ulster itself he could not easily go over the heads of the politicians but he need not passively accept the current state of opinion. It is far from inevitable that a referendum in Northern Ireland would reject the sort of sensitive arrangements for protecting the rights of all communities that were envisaged in the Anglo-Irish working paper leaked last month. There are politicians and people in Ulster more realistic than many of the present leaders. They want an end to violence by both sides. They also know that they will one day be a minority and would therefore be wise to seek guarantees now.
Mr Major is aware of his opportunity but has not yet risen to it. By trying to hide too much and deny too much, and by fumbling the release of documents on the secret talks, he has allowed the IRA to appear more truthful than his own ministers. By accepting the Unionist politicians at their own valuation he is tying his hands unnecessarily. The essence of political vision is to see beyond a reality that everyone else accepts. 'Realism' ceases to be realistic when the facts can be changed. Now is the time to change them.Reuse content