Why Major retains his optimism

The Prime Minister, a self-proclaimed Unionist, is giving all to this issue. Donald Macintyre reports A FRAMEWORK FOR PEACE
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The Independent Online
A close friend of John Major's who spoke to him last weekend found him somewhat low-spirited, for reasons that had nothing to do with the Tories' persistently low ratings in the polls.

It was simply that the continued squabbling over Europe, not to mention unwelcome personal publicity in the weekend press about his son, threatened to distract him from the one issue which has taken more of his time than any since Christmas, was about to consume the week ahead at the expense of everything else, and which he still regards as the most crucial of this phase of his premiership: Northern Ireland.

To find the reason for the low-key optimism which the Prime Minister exuded at yesterday's press conferences in Belfast, it is important to recall not only that depth of commitment but also, as he has recollected often over the past 24 hours, how much has happened in two years.

If you had said in early 1993 that an IRA ceasefire would have lasted six months, that the Downing Street Declaration would survive a change of Irish government to bear fruit in yesterday's documents, or that Mr Major would have been prepared to risk the alienation of some of his enemies in the Tory party by putting his signature to a document which has so angered the Ulster Unionists, most people would have said you were mad.

While acknowledging Mr Major's painstaking and comprehensive grasp of the details, the cynics have always been inclined to write off each "hurdle", as Mr Major put it yesterday, as a hurdle too far. And this is no exception; the obvious parallel is the Sunningdale agreement in 1973, which foundered a year later on the rock of the Ulster workers' strike. But Mr Major believes that the circumstances now are critically different both from those in 1973 and those that surrounded the Anglo-Irish agreement in 1985.

The most obvious difference is that peace has lasted nearly six months. But he is also convinced that the guarantee that the North-South body - which Unionists see as the skeleton of all-Ireland government - will be answerable to the Northern Ireland assembly, and that the Irish government is prepared to make its territorial claim conditional on consent, will in time persuade the people of Northern Ireland to tell their elected representatives to give all-party negotiations a chance.

Finally, he would argue, the principle of consent is now accepted by the constitutional leaders of the nationalist community on both sides of the border, by the US government and by the Roman Catholic Church, in a way it has not been before.

Having anticipated that the documents would have a turbulent birth, he now expects weeks of bilateral discussions, between the Northern Ireland Office and the Unionist parties, before all-party talks even have a hope of getting off the ground.

Mr Major reaffirmed his own Unionism yesterday in the face of a document which the Unionists see only as reinforcing the British government's neutrality on the future of Northern Ireland, saying: "I'm a Unionist who wants peace for the Unionists, peace for the nationalists and a rational, sane future for Northern Ireland." There are risks here, risks to his own majority; perhaps even to the peace process itself. But Mr Major believes that it is possible to take risks without being reckless.