Generous and sensible Major eats his words

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It has been rare to see John Major retreat on an issue of substance and look a bigger man as a result. Yesterday in the Commons he walked backwards and grew in stature at the same time - an impressive manoeuvre. His acceptance that decommissioning of Irish terrorist weaponry might be carried out while political talks were continuing is a clear retreat. But it was a virtuous one and a necessary one.

The old position that arms had to be surrendered before the political talks started was considered essential by London from the very first private conversations that led to the peace process. But the IRA didn't budge an inch.

It has been clear for months that Mr Major and Sir Patrick Mayhew were prepared, however reluctantly, to think again. Now they have - just as they, rather than the IRA, eventually moved on the silly verbal argument about whether the ceasefire was permanent or total.

It is never easy for politicians to eat their words, but complicated negotiation between previously unreconcilable enemies requires a lot of it. And the Prime Minister eats his very nicely. He was generous, smooth and sensible as he consumed the old precondition. He zig-zagged and moralised as he approached the only word of his statement that really mattered: "However.'' But he got there. He cannot have liked some things he read in the Mitchell Report, with its unequivocal statement that the surrender of arms before talks "will not happen''. But he swallowed all that too. As he told the Commons: "There is something in this report which is uncomfortable for every party in these negotiations.''

Whatever the discomfort, there is no escaping the logic underlying the idea of elections followed by talks-with-decommissioning: "If there can be no talks before arms decommissioning has started, and if arms decommissioning cannot start, why then - both must happen at the same time.''

The question now is over the form of the body which David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist leader, wants to see elected by May. He already seems a new kind of Unionist leader - fast-moving, assertive, and self-certain. But he and Mr Major have to produce some kind of constitutional assembly which will reassure the nationalists that it exists not to administer the status quo, but to move the politics of the Province on.

Oddly, it may seem, the moderate nationalists in Dublin and in the SDLP may turn out to have more problems with the proposed elections than Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein. John Hume, who has been a pillar of the peace process, was in uncharacteristically belligerent and ungracious mood, suggesting in the Commons that Mr Major was now in the pocket of the Unionists. He may suspect it. He has no evidence for it.

There are, of course, good reasons for moderate nationalists to flinch. Mr Hume has serious political problems if elections go ahead, including the prospect of his SDLP being out-played and out-spent in an electoral battle with Sinn Fein for the nationalist vote. That would be a sorry reward for his courage 18 months ago.

The SDLP is also worried about the smaller Unionist parties with paramilitary links being excluded from any new elected body; however unpleasant their pasts, these are essential to any final deal. So there has been a stand- off between the Unionists, who won't attend immediate talks without decommissioning; and the SDLP, who don't want elections before talks.

What the three eminent outsiders of the Mitchell Commission have done is to reassert the urgency and primacy of political movement and therefore tilt the argument towards the creation of an elected body "with an appropriate mandate''.

Their short report makes the handing-over of at least some terrorist weapons seem suddenly more plausible.

For the British jurisdiction in modern times, its proposals are genuinely radical: for instance, arms handed over should be exempt under law from forensic examination, so that the police learn nothing about who had handled them. Handguns should be destroyed; amnesties on possession of illegal weapons should be established in both parts of Ireland. Yes, one thinks, this might actually happen.

Whether it does, and how soon, now rests with two parties above all. The Ulster Unionists have a duty to ensure that their proposed elected body is sufficiently focused and limited to be acceptable to the nationalists; and then the SDLP, however suspicious, has a duty to agree and to participate.

This will cause discomfort for both David Trimble and John Hume. They too will have to eat past words. But both are big figures; and the faster old words are chewed and swallowed, the better for Northern Ireland.