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
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SThree: Recruitment Consultant

competitive + incentives + uncapped comms: SThree: Did you know? 98% of our di...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

competitive: SThree: Did you know? 98% of our directors started with SThree as...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + competitive: SThree: Are you passionate about sa...

Recruitment Genius: Junior Sales Executive - OTE £28,000

£15000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity for...

Day In a Page

Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
The male menopause and intimations of mortality

Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

Bettany Hughes interview

The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

Art of the state

Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

Vegetarian food gets a makeover

Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

The haunting of Shirley Jackson

Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen