The Ulster Declaration: Well-concealed gambler's instinct produces a result: The Prime Minister's Role

JOHN MAJOR once remarked that too many people underestimated his gambler's instinct. Yesterday's outcome to the Anglo-Irish negotiation suggests he may have been right. There have certainly been times in the past 18 months when that instinct was well concealed. His cautious whip's instincts, his determination not to alienate rebels in the Tory midst, his tendency to leave MPs puzzled about his true views, have all created the impression that he was among the least risky of politicians.

That view now needs to be revised. For the process that led up to yesterday's joint declaration was a real gamble for the Prime Minister. The stakes were certainly high for him personally. Had the negotiations with Dublin broken down, had Mr Major been seen to have made concessions and failed, the results could have been terminal. Tory dissidents would have been quick to create the kind of trouble he faced over Maastricht.

A number of his colleagues - including some of those fulsome in their praise of him yesterday - were suggesting in private not long ago that Mr Major was being naive, that the risks of negotiating with Dublin were too high, that greater men than he had gone down the same route before and failed. There were also plenty of observers who doubted his seriousness; how, when he had struck an accord with the Ulster Unionists, could he risk alienating the support of the very people upon which his slender Parliamentary majority was assumed to rely?

To say the sceptics were proved wrong is not to suggest that he and Mr Reynolds have found a magic solution. The process remains fraught with hazards. But politics is about taking opportunities. The intelligence reports showing that key elements of the IRA wanted a way out; the statesmanlike vision shown by Dick Spring, the Irish Foreign minister, after the Irish elections; the signs from the Hume-Adams peace process that a solution might be worth striving for: these were not circumstances of Mr Major's making. But it would have been easy - and perhaps more comfortable - to ignore them.

Mr Major remains the skilful politician, of course. He has striven behind the scenes to ensure the accord with James Molyneaux's Unionists survives the great strain it is now under. He was deft at yesterday's press conference to seize on Ian Paisley's tactical error in condemning the joint declaration before even reading it. But he also rose to the occasion, quoting Cardinal Daly's declaration two weeks ago that 'now is the time, and now is the chance' for the IRA to end violence for good. And the Commons rose with him. To secure the support of John Smith, John Hume and, however warily, James Molyneaux, is no mean matter.

There has been a lot of loose talk about Ireland being Mr Major's Falklands. There is a fallacy here. If yesterday's joint declaration does prove to be a turning point, it will still be a longer and messier process than Mrs Thatcher's decisive victory over the Argentinians. Moreover, the Falklands factor in the 1983 election has always been exaggerated. She won that election as much because it coincided with an economic recovery.

But that very point suggests there is a parallel. If the economy continues to recover, the Downing Street declaration might well take on some of the symbolism that the Falklands did for Lady Thatcher. For Mr Major to have tried and succeeded would be a glittering prize. But to have tried and failed honourably can at the very worst, do him little harm with the British electorate - and may well do him a great deal of good.

After concluding the Treaty with the Irish negotiators in 1921, Lord Birkenhead famously remarked that he might have signed his political death warrant; it is looking rather as if Mr Major yesterday did exactly the opposite - and decisively removed the signature from his.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
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

Recruitment Genius: Photographer / Floorplanner / Domestic Energy Assessor

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Photographer/ Floor planner /...

Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Surrey - £40,000

£30000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Guildford/Craw...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Assistant

£13500 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Customer Service Assistant is...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £35,000

£16000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An ambitious and motivated Sale...

Day In a Page

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence