This is John Major's nuclear deterrent - and the Unionists know it. Downing Street has insisted nothing will go to a referendum unless all the political parties agree. But what if the Unionists were to seem utterly intransigent, just saying "no" as they have so often done in the past? "Someone has persuaded the Government," said one Unionist MP, "that they can go over our heads. That is why they saturated the province with 600,000 copies of the Framework Document."
If there were a "yes" vote for a settlement they had opposed, the Unionist parties would be heading for political extinction. The arithmetic of Northern Ireland suggests that their nightmare could come true. In 1971, 31.4 per cent of the population gave their religion as Roman Catholicism; by the 1991 Census, the proportion had risen to 38.4 per cent. A bare majority - 50.6 per cent - described themselves as Presbyterian, Church of Ireland, Methodist or other Protestant denominations. The remaining 11 per cent refused to answer the question or said they had no religion.
For all sorts of reasons, people may be reluctant to answer such questions accurately and these figures should be treated with caution. So voting may be a better guide to what would happen in a referendum.
In the 1992 General Election, the Nationalist parties' share of the vote was about 35 per cent, with the Social Democratic and Labour Party, led by John Hume, polling 23.5 per cent and Sinn Fein 10 per cent. On their reactions so far, it looks as if both parties would endorse the document - after all, it gives Nationalists far more than they have ever been offered before.
Then there is the Alliance Party, which draws mainly on middle-class support from both sides, particularly liberal Protestants (it was once known as a Protestant party led by Catholics). It polled 8.7 per cent in 1992, and is almost certain to endorse a deal.
Thus, a combination of the three parties could deliver more than 42 per cent of the vote. (The breakdown between the three was different in last year's European elections, but the total was almost identical.) It would then need only a few Unionists to switch sides or, perhaps uncertain that they wanted to risk a renewal of hostilities, to stay at home.
As one government source put it: "It would only need a small number of middle-class Unionists to say, `Let's give this a try', combined with people who do not normally vote, to create a slender majority in favour."
This is hardly Mr Major's preferred option. He wants a stable political coalition, drawn from both sides of the sectarian divide, to make the settlement work in the long term. A majority of, say, 75-25 per cent is infinitely preferable to one of 51-49 per cent. This is why the role of James Molyneaux, leader of the UUP, is so important.
But Mr Molyneaux does not hold all the aces. And anybody who wonders why he is so cautious - and why even Ian Paisley, leader of the hardline DUP, is being slightly less dramatic of gesture than usual - should look at the results of an opinion poll by Ulster Marketing Surveys for Channel 4 last week.
It found that 81 per cent of UUP supporters and 63 per cent of DUP supporters want their parties to talk about the Framework Document. For Mr Major, there is everything to play for; for the Unionist leaders, there is the awful prospect of political isolation.
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