A decent deed worthy of celebration

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The Independent Online
LET US for once celebrate a little. Not peace, for this is only a point in a process, the glossiest olive-branch that democrats can offer to gunmen. But the joint declaration is an achievement in itself, an act of political courage and some vision. It was not inevitable. At times it looked as if it wouldn't happen. It required hard work, single-mindedness and skill. So, before anything else, acknowledge a real success from those lampooned failures, the politicians.

John Major, for one, looks a bigger man. He was doing something good, for its own sake, and it showed. When Ian Paisley launched a rambling but unpleasant attack on him in the Commons, Mr Major replied with rare, spontaneous eloquence about his dream that there should be 'no more coffins carried away week after week because politicians don't have the courage to sit down and try to find a way through'.

Whether this ends by reinforcing our ingrained pessimism about Irish politics, or by subverting it, he was surely right to go beyond old positions in the search for peace. The declaration surprised most people by its 'green' or nationalist tinge. Margaret Thatcher would not have done this. Yes, think of that: visionless, vacillating John Major has displayed more guts and imagination than the baroness.

This was a delicate job, requiring steady fingers and clear minds. The slightest failure in emphasis would have been disastrous. Too close to Irish nationalism and Mr Major would have lost all hope of Ulster Unionist support at Westminster. He would have provoked a rebellion by a few of his own MPs, too, and quite possibly ended his premiership in disgrace. But tilting too much to the Unionists would have incurred the bitterness of the nationalists and provoked the certainty of more violence, not less.

The first indications are that the long hours of phrase-juggling have produced a constitutional declaration about as good as it could have been. It is a curious one. At one level, it is almost banal, committing the governments to democracy and reconciliation. Yet it moved things on, too. The spirit of the declaration is incompatible with both the staunch, active Unionism that the Conservative Party professes; and with the constitution of the Irish Republic. It erodes the official status of both kinds of nationalism. In doing so, the prospect of Belfast becoming a rain-shrouded Beirut in the early years of the next millennium is made less likely.

But not impossible. The words, smoothed and balanced, have been issued to the ether. They have attracted the assent of the main Westminster parties, and of all but the most hardline Ulster politicians. This is not nearly enough. Unless they lead to a declaration from the IRA that the 25-year dirty war is over, and provoke a matching ceasefire from the loyalist death-squads, the main object of this process will have been frustrated.

Sinn Fein's first reaction was to express 'disappointment'. But the warm welcome for the declaration in Dublin and from the SDLP's John Hume, leaves hardline nationalists isolated. If they really thought they could get more than this, they are deluded. The IRA has a clear choice: they can come in from the nightmare or condemn their own children to relive it. 'They won't have a better opportunity and they don't have a better option,' said Mr Major, pithily and accurately.

Even if there were a change of heart by the IRA, the difficulties would abound. There would be splits, probably involving murders. There would be the issue of terrorist prisoners, and the reaction of their victims' families if they were released early. There are the arsenals: it was interesting that Mr Major evaded questions about the necessity of all arms being handed over before talks could start with Sinn Fein.

The slow and difficult road to peace will confront Unionist politicians with equally sharp dilemmas. To reject the declaration is to reject the democratic guarantees it offers: it leads only to the hopelessness of a declining and despised ghetto.

So Jim Molyneaux was startlingly emollient and the harder-line Official Unionist MP David Trimble was restrained and moderate. No doubt splits and political tensions will emerge among mainstream Unionists, but the rejectionist Democratic Unionists have never looked more isolated. Ian Paisley's incendiary verbiage simply revolts most British people. He sounds increasingly irrelevant and ridiculous: his bellowing in front of Downing Street about 'the blood of the righteous dead' and 'fiendish republican scum' provoked the man from the Mirror to reply blandly: 'So it's a cautious welcome, then?'

Paisley plays better in Belfast, however, where initial reactions seemed jumpier. Mainstream Unionists now need to take him on in Northern Ireland and refute his 'arguments' there. That will require leadership of an order too rarely seen in Northern Irish politics. But it is essential not only for narrow party reasons, but for the survival of the Unionist project.

This may seem paradoxical, but it makes sense because the Unionist trump card remains the preference of most people in Northern Ireland to stay in the United Kingdom. The more that Ulster Catholics can be made to feel at home in the province - the more jobs, the more stability, the more power-sharing - the less likely a united Ireland will be. So just as the Irish government must now begin the long business of modernising its state, to produce a secular society in which Protestants can feel secure, so the shrewder Ulster Unionists must now try to create a more tolerant and prosperous Northern Ireland.

To that extent it is wrong to see the declaration as something purely for the IRA. Both governments have presented it that way, but, perhaps for tactical reasons, they may be underselling their achievement. It could be the gateway to a series of wider political reforms, which don't necessarily depend on Sinn Fein. The modernisation of the Irish state, a cross-party agreement in Northern Ireland and the modernisation of Unionism are all political projects that seem more urgent now than they did a week ago.

The easy and predictable response will be that there has been too much meddling in Northern Ireland by well-meaning politicians and that it always ends in tears and blood.

But the disaster of Northern Ireland has been a political affair, inflamed not by politics, but by bad politics. It has been a long failure of democracy and leadership, marked by gerrymandering, the repression of Catholics, and a weary unimaginativeness at Westminster. The only possible route out of his disaster involves better politics. Prime ministers cannot do that by themselves - many other people now have to show courage and imagination as well. But they can take a lead, and they have done.

Whatever happens, there will be plenty of grisly and depressing days ahead. There will be plenty of occasions when the rheumy cynics will suck their teeth and many days when optimists will be deflated. This will be messy and tortuous. But let us now, for God's sake, recognise a decent deed when we see one.