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.

people And here is why...
Arts and Entertainment
Amazon has added a cautionary warning to Tom and Jerry cartoons on its streaming service
voicesBy the man who has
Arsene Wenger tried to sign Eden Hazard
footballAfter 18 years with Arsenal, here are 18 things he has still never done as the Gunners' manager
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
The new Windows 10 Start Menu
Arts and Entertainment
Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson star in The Twilight Saga but will not be starring in the new Facebook mini-movies
tvKristen Stewart and Stephenie Meyer will choose female directrs
Arts and Entertainment
Hilary North's 'How My Life Has Changed', 2001
books(and not a Buzzfeed article in sight)
William Hague
people... when he called Hague the county's greatest
More than 90 years of car history are coming to an end with the abolition of the paper car-tax disc
newsThis and other facts you never knew about the paper circle - completely obsolete today
Arts and Entertainment
There has been a boom in ticket sales for female comics, according to an industry survey
comedyFirst national survey reveals Britain’s comedic tastes
Arts and Entertainment
Twerking girls: Miley Cyrus's video for 'Wrecking Ball'
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Ed Sheeran performs at his Amazon Front Row event on Tuesday 30 September
musicHe spotted PM at private gig
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

General Cover Teacher

£120 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Luton: Are you looking for part time/ ...

SEN (SLD/PMLD) Teacher

£120 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Are you a quailed Teacher ...

General Cover Teacher

£120 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Luton: Currently looking for teachers ...

SEN Teaching Assistant Runcorn

£50 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: SEN Teaching Assistant EBD , Septemb...

Day In a Page

Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

The children orphaned by Ebola...

... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

Are censors pandering to homophobia?

US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
The magic of roundabouts

Lords of the rings

Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
Why do we like making lists?

Notes to self: Why do we like making lists?

Well it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
Hong Kong protests: A good time to open a new restaurant?

A good time to open a new restaurant in Hong Kong?

As pro-democracy demonstrators hold firm, chef Rowley Leigh, who's in the city to open a new restaurant, says you couldn't hope to meet a nicer bunch
Paris Fashion Week: Karl Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'

Paris Fashion Week

Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'
Bruce Chatwin's Wales: One of the finest one-day walks in Britain

Simon Calder discovers Bruce Chatwin's Wales

One of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
10 best children's nightwear

10 best children's nightwear

Make sure the kids stay cosy on cooler autumn nights in this selection of pjs, onesies and nighties
Manchester City vs Roma: Five things we learnt from City’s draw at the Etihad

Manchester City vs Roma

Five things we learnt from City’s Champions League draw at the Etihad
Martin Hardy: Mike Ashley must act now and end the Alan Pardew reign

Trouble on the Tyne

Ashley must act now and end Pardew's reign at Newcastle, says Martin Hardy
Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

Last chance to see...

The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

Truth behind teens' grumpiness

Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

Hacked photos: the third wave

Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?