Kisses, hugs and stony faces as Ulster meets New Labour

Click to follow
The Independent Online
The snarling stone gryphons which guard the steps of Belfast's Stormont Castle seemed aghast yesterday as Labour's new Secretary of State for Northern Ireland stood in their shadow and pushed forward policies full of innovation and, of course, risk.

On the same day as a Sinn Fein delegation trooped past the gryphons to talk to officials about a new ceasefire, Mo Mowlam was criss-crossing Northern Ireland from one marching flashpoint to another, meeting Orangemen and Catholic residents' groups.

The ceiling of the castle's entrance hall may remain encrusted with cobwebs - which it does, literally as well as figuratively - but Ms Mowlam's message is that she is in the business of blowing away the cobwebs. "We will move," she said, in front of the gryphons. "Tony Blair made it absolutely clear that we intend to get momentum into this and to get moving."

The flamboyant baronial castle had always seemed a fitting home to Ms Mowlam's predecessor, Sir Patrick Mayhew, whose vice-regal sedateness chimed perfectly with its turrets and battlements. But now its principal resident is in the business of audacious outreach rather than of simply holding the fort.

The style, and therefore the substance, has changed; Sir Patrick's ingrained Tory pessimism giving way to the new optimism of new Labour. The Tory formality has gone too: Sir Patrick never greeted reporters with "Hello sweethearts," nor kissed Ulster Television's political correspondent.

Yesterday a new start was made on two fronts, the quest for a new IRA ceasefire and the pursuit of a non-confrontational marching season. On the first front, Martin McGuinness led a Sinn Fein delegation for his first meeting with government representatives since the IRA's bombing of the London Docklands in February last year.

Afterwards Mr McGuinness said the election had brought a change in the attitude of the officials he met: "It was very clear to me from their demeanour at the meeting that they are now working for a new set of employers."

He and Ms Mowlam both said it had been agreed to hold another meeting but she made it clear that this could change if the IRA broke the undeclared suspension of violence which has been in effect for more than three weeks.

While Ms Mowlam did not make a continuing suspension of violence an absolute condition for a further meeting, in speaking to reporters she three times referred to its importance. She declared: "Very usefully, there has been an agreement in principle that they will meet again, conditions on the ground remaining, which I think is the positive story from the meeting."

While she stressed the urgency of making progress quickly, both she and Mr McGuinness referred to the complication of the Irish general election which is due to be held on 6 June. He said: "Many people who are close to this process are very conscious about that and about the need for those elections to be out of the way."

This appears to suggest that vital moves in a new peace process will await the outcome of the election, which at the moment appears set to be a close contest. There is also a feeling that any new ceasefire may not arrive until the Drumcree parade, with its threat of another confrontation, is out of the way.

From the Unionist side came criticism of the Secretary's action in meeting residents' groups, some of which are regularly denounced by Unionist politicians and Orangemen as "Sinn Fein - IRA fronts". Ms Mowlam's rejoinder dwelt on her endorsement of dialogue: "In the end there is no other answer but for people to sit down and talk because that is the only way we're going to move the process forward."

There was also criticism of timing the meetings with Sinn Fein and the residents' groups, since yesterday was polling day in the local council elections. The Rev Ian Paisley, the DUP leader, made it clear that for him Ms Mowlam's honeymoon period was over: "We have seen the tip of the iceberg today of new Labour's real policy. Prisoners brought over here ... the talks going on at Stormont and in the midst of an election day the Secretary of State consorting with law-breakers."