Mandelson: back on the high wire

Once Ulster was seen as a place of political exile. Now it offers the chance for a would-be statesman to showcase his skills
Click to follow

elfast is going to test all of Peter Mandelson's skills, intellect, stamina and patience. It is also going to test both his nerve and his character, for nothing comes cosy to politicians in this city, and many of his decisions will be high-risk.

elfast is going to test all of Peter Mandelson's skills, intellect, stamina and patience. It is also going to test both his nerve and his character, for nothing comes cosy to politicians in this city, and many of his decisions will be high-risk.

Although, as of now, the modernising minister and the history-obsessed statelet have little enough in common, that will quickly change. Their fortunes are about to become inextricably linked, for the success of his career and of the peace process will be bound up with each other.

Success will be easily defined: it will be the formation of a new devolved coalition administration, including in its ranks not just David Trimble and Martin McGuinness but also supporters of the Rev Ian Paisley.

Bringing it into being means persuading Unionists that republicans are serious about moving away from their violent past and into politics. The corollary is that it means persuading republicans to address Unionist concerns on arms decommissioning.

Finding out exactly how to do this eluded Mo Mowlam, which resulted in the stalemate of the past 12 months and more. Achieving the breakthrough now will take all the powers of persuasion and pressure of Peter Mandelson, Tony Blair, George Mitchell and others.

The task is formidable but not impossible, for along with all the well-known difficulties there are many helpful factors in the air. The time available is, however, probably limited to a year or less, in that the Good Friday Agreement cannot for ever survive in the face of stasis and repeated failures to bring it fully into operation.

In practice this may mean that the current Mitchell review of the agreement will be the last but one chance for the agreement. If this exercise fails, then there will be scope, say in the new year, for the launching of a Mandelson initiative to break the deadlock. That may really be the last chance for the accord, since if that does not work, the agreement may look beyond resuscitation.

But before that point is reached, there will be real opportunities for progress, since the difficulties are balanced by some favourable factors. Seven people in 10 voted for the Good Friday Agreement, and although there has been some disillusioned Protestant drift, this could be quickly reversed if the spirit of hope can be rekindled.

It is certainly the case that the vast majority out there have bidden a psychological farewell to the Troubles. Not everyone wants to live in close proximity to the other side; not everyone strenuously objects if either the IRA or loyalists carry out the occasional murder or beating; but just about everyone wants the present imperfect peace to last.

That is actually a fairly promising start for a new Northern Ireland Secretary. Many previous ministers have arrived in Belfast to be confronted with the shattered wreckage of their predecessor's dreams: the Mowlam-Mandelson handover is much more a case of a search for the final pieces of the jigsaw.

There is no need now to go back to the drawing-board and start from scratch, for the Good Friday Agreement provided the template for a settlement. Its provisions have already laid to rest many thorny issues, including Northern Ireland's constitutional position.

The decks have largely been cleared, in other words, for this final struggle to bring a cross-community government into being. Such an administration cannot be expected to be a tranquil affair, but there is reason to hope that, despite the inevitable tensions, its very existence would amount to a solid underpinning of the peace process.

The Mandelson appointment has itself already sent a certain charge through the political atmosphere. The Prime Minister has not sent over a middling minister who might be content to hold the fort: this is an ambitious strategist who is expected to attack the problem with determination and drive. His personality and track record, together with his obvious closeness to Tony Blair, signal that a big push will be made to fix this thing once and for all.

In the first instance this means working creatively on David Trimble and Gerry Adams to produce an acceptable compromise. The republicans will have to deliver some guns, either up-front or with a promise to which they can be held; the Unionists will have to take the plunge and go into government with their old enemies.

Although there is no guarantee of immediate success, the general feeling is that both sides want the same thing, which is a new administration. They do not, however, trust each other. Devising the mutual guarantees to allow them to do business together will be Peter Mandelson's immediate priority.