The Ulster Declaration: Change of strategy opened door to deal: The Steps to Agreement

WITH the publication of the joint declaration with Dublin, the British Government has made a highly significant and possible irreversible shift in its basic approach to the problem of Northern Ireland.

For more than two decades, most Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland and prime ministers have worked on the theory of finding the middle ground, establishing a devolved administration there and patiently building up a consensus from the centre out.

In this theory, the extremes were to become gradually more and more isolated and would finally wither away. This approach had many drawbacks, not the least of which was that it never worked. In 1974, the only time that the first hurdle was overcome and a power-sharing executive created, the whole experiment fell apart under extremist pressure in less than six months.

One very obvious problem was the Rev Ian Paisley, whose anti-establishment instincts generally ensured he would attack any agreement among the Northern Ireland parties. Another problem lay in the fact that there are in fact two middle grounds, one Unionist and one nationalist. Even moderate nationalist politicians insist that their Irishness should be recognised in some form of Irish dimension and link with Dublin. But even moderate Unionist politicians were unsettled by this, worrying that it would weaken their link with Britain.

A further blow to the theory came with the emergence of Sinn Fein as a significant political presence in the early 1980s. Until then, part of the standard rhetoric of government ministers was to declare that only a tiny minority supported violence. Sinn Fein's achievement of winning the support of three out of every ten nationalist voters put an end to that line of argument.

Another problem was that as the years passed and the various attempts failed, fewer and fewer people maintained any belief that this course might lead to peace.

But lack of success with this approach did not stop Northern Ireland Office ministers and officials persevering with it. Sir Patrick Mayhew recently complained that people accused him of whistling in the dark in his efforts to restart inter-party talks, saying only a few weeks ago: 'While the talks retain so much potential, the priority must be to carry them forward, not cut across or duplicate them.'

Yesterday's joint declaration represents a dramatic departure from that traditional approach. The concept of building incrementally from the middle out is, for the moment at least, taking second place to the new idea of attempting to draw the extremists into the political processes.

The new approach received such widespread support in London and Dublin yesterday that it is easy to forget how controversial a move it seemed a short time ago.

When it emerged in the spring that John Hume, the SDLP leader, was engaged in dialogue with Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein, there were strong responses. The Independent reported at the time: 'Reaction has ranged from furious Unionist denunciation to warm endorsement of his actions, but between these two poles there is considerable bewilderment about the significance of it all.'

At that point the idea of talking to terrorists or those associated with them was one of the most delicate and dangerous issues in Irish politics. When Mr Hume announced that he and Mr Adams had reached a measure of agreement and said he was presenting this to the Irish government, some Dublin sources made it clear they were furious about having to handle anything bearing Mr Adams's thumbprints.

Dublin's decidedly cool reaction to the Hume-Adams initiative was followed by outright rejection from John Major, who declared in the Commons that the thought of talking to Mr Adams 'turned his stomach'. At that point the initiative seemed to be dead, but a wave of popular nationalist support, north and south, not only revived it but propelled it to centre-stage of the Anglo-Irish scene. Albert Reynolds was forced to reverse his original judgement and become the idea's chief proponent. His position was explained by an associate: 'The Hume-Adams idea is so big that you can't just leave it on the landscape and walk away and say, 'Very interesting idea but we have something else to try.' It's far too big to do that: you have to resolve it into success or failure.'

For some weeks it seemed the Hume-Adams initiative - sanitised, by this stage, into the Reynolds initiative - was going nowhere fast. An Anglo-Irish negotiation opened in which the Taoiseach sought to persuade John Major that the IRA could be induced to lay down its weapons and take a political path. Hume-Adams has never been published, but it is said to include a draft declaration on self-determination, assurances to Unionists that majority consent would be required for a united Ireland, emphasis on agreement, a reference to a new European context, and assurances that Sinn Fein can enter political life if the IRA abandons terrorism.

The Major-Reynolds declaration touches on all these points, though both governments are playing down its antecedence. For the moment the thumbprints of neither Hume nor Adams are unwelcome.

The Taoiseach's conversion to the new approach was sudden; the Prime Minister's change of tack came more gradually and was effected more elegantly. His problem was that he was anxious to retain the parliamentary support of James Molyneaux and his nine Ulster Unionist votes; and Mr Molyneaux clearly thought the new approach was not worth trying.

The Unionist leader has deep reservations about the declaration: his opinion seemed to harden during the day yesterday, culminating in his observation last night that it 'has the makings of a betrayal'. But he was briefed before publication and indicated to the Government that he would not denounce it.

Mr Major had therefore contributed to a remarkable political feat: the assembly of a document which stood some chance of being acceptable to the IRA, and which at the same time appeared to have the acquiescence of Northern Ireland's largest Unionist party.

While it has the potential to do both, there is no guarantee that it will do either. The considered reactions of the IRA, and the Unionist community, will take some time to emerge but it is quite possible that the coming days and weeks could bring heightened dangers - at worst, no IRA cessation, coupled with a rise in loyalist violence.

But even such a disastrous short-term outcome is unlikely to kill off completely the notion that addressing the terrorists directly could bring eventual peace. Even if the approach does not work immediately, there will be further efforts to bridge the gap between the IRA and the political system.

A fundamental change has been made to the political agenda, for the tantalising prospect that peace could be achieved by this path is simply too big to be ignored. There is more and more hope that it is an idea whose time has come.

(Photograph omitted)

News
scienceExcitement from alien hunters at 'evidence' of extraterrestrial life
Life and Style
Customers can get their caffeine fix on the move
food + drink
News
newsRyan Crighton goes in search of the capo dei capi
Extras
indybest

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Arts and Entertainment
Actors front row from left, Jared Leto, Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep, Ellen DeGeneres, Bradley Cooper, Peter Nyongío Jr., and, second row, from left, Channing Tatum, Julia Roberts, Kevin Spacey, Brad Pitt, Lupita Nyongío and Angelina Jolie as they pose for a
film
Sport
sport
Life and Style
techCould new invention save millions in healthcare bills?
Sport
David Moyes gets soaked
sport Moyes becomes latest manager to take part in the ALS challenge
Voices
A meteor streaks across the sky during the Perseid Meteor Shower at a wind farm near Bogdanci, south of Skopje, Macedonia, in the early hours of 13 August
voicesHagel and Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise, says Robert Fisk
News
peopleEnglishman managed quintessential Hollywood restaurant Chasen's
Life and Style
food + drinkHarrods launches gourmet food qualification for staff
Arts and Entertainment
Michael Flatley prepares to bid farewell to the West End stage
danceMichael Flatley hits West End for last time alongside Team GB World champion Alice Upcott
Life and Style
Horst P Horst mid-fashion shoot in New York, 1949
fashionFar-reaching retrospective to celebrate Horst P Horst's six decades of creativity
News
Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community walk with a rainbow flag during a rally in July
i100
Life and Style
Black Ivory Coffee is made using beans plucked from elephants' waste after ingested by the animals
food + drinkFirm says it has created the "rarest" coffee in the world
Life and Style
news

As Voltaire once said, “Ice cream is exquisite. What a pity it isn’t illegal”

Life and Style
food + drinkThese simple recipes will have you refreshed within minutes
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

C#.NET VB6 Developer (Software Developer, Software Engineer)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: C#.NET VB6 Developer (Software Developer, Softwa...

Service Desk Analyst- Desktop Support, Helpdesk, ITIL

£20000 - £27000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Su...

Service Desk Analyst - (Active Directory, Support, London)

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst - (Active Di...

Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost, Data Mining

£30000 - £50000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost...

Day In a Page

All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

Radio 1’s new top ten

The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

Florence Knight's perfect picnic

Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

Mark Hix's summery soups

Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

Tim Sherwood column

I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition