TORY LEADERSHIP ELECTION: Ulster undaunted by Tory crisis

NORTHERN IRELAND
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The Independent Online
In Ireland, the view is widespread that the Conservative leadership crisis should not, and almost certainly will not, pose any significant danger to the peace which has held since August of last year.

Although tensions and difficulties abound within the peace process, the bottom line is that there is no serious prospect of a return to violence by either the IRA or loyalist paramilitary groups.

It had become clear months before the actual ceasefires took effect that in the peace process the British Government, though of great importance, was only one of a number of powerful participants. Together these made up an entity which is arguably greater than the sum of its constituent parts.

This sense was voiced by the Irish minister for foreign affairs, Dick Spring, who described the process as "very firmly anchored and bigger than any politician either in Ireland or Britain".

To put it another way, while Mr Major has been important in the process, he has had little freedom of independent action. Among others, the Dublin government, Irish public opinion and the Clinton administration have all proved capable of exerting strong pressures.

The process itself has thus been under the control of no single element. Over the past year, Mr Major has shown signs of being less than comfortable with this concept, repeatedly tussling with the US administration on issues concerning Sinn Fein.

While the overall maintenance of peace looks secure, the political aspects of the process have given rise to a continual stream of spats and disagreements. At the moment, the foremost of these is the decommissioning of IRA weaponry, with republicans resisting Government demands for a handover of arms.

Although such issues are regarded as difficult, none has had the appearance of a crisis which would actually threaten the peace. One veteran observer used a traditional Belfast phrase to describe the continuing arguments when he remarked: "Things are desperate but not serious."

One problem for the process, for which Mr Major has often been blamed, is the widespread perception that the Government has often retreated from its declared positions. A delegation of Presbyterian clergy recently plaintively told the Prime Minister: "Initially the Government have taken a firm line on issues such as clarification, permanence and decommissioning. However, over a period of time, their stance on each of these issues has been eroded."

This viewpoint has dented the Government's credibility and may well have encouraged republicans to believe that, if they hold out long enough on issues such as decommissioning, the Government will eventually cave in.

Another perception in Dublin is that a Major victory would strengthen his hand and remove a backbench brake from the process. The Irish hope is that this would lead to a welcome injection of new momentum.

But whatever the outcome, the sense is that the process is surprisingly robust and can be expected to survive any result.

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