The speech at the Lord Mayor's banquet is one of the big set pieces of the political calendar. By choosing to devote a substantial part of it to the prospects for peace in Northern Ireland, he has done two things: further raised expectations, which were perhaps dangerously high already, and identified himself fully with the efforts to produce a settlement.
Noble though the endeavour may be, there is also calculation here, albeit calculation born of desperation. Despite evidence of slow but soundly based recovery in the economy, the Government, and John Major in particular, have yet to see any improvement in their dismal poll standings. Mr Major is realist enough to know that if his party concludes that it cannot win with him, it will make a serious attempt at winning without him. If he is not going to get the credit for a strengthening economy, he will need to do something big enough and clean enough to silence his critics. It is beginning to look as if that something is Northern Ireland.
The Hume-Adams talks have raised the serious possibility that the IRA is ready to turn its back on 'impossibilism' - the insistence that the terrorist campaign will be waged until the British quit Northern Ireland. Mr Major is likely to have received the same message: if we can believe the claim of Gerry Adams following Mr Major's speech, and we probably can, then Sinn Fein was involved in direct and 'protracted' contact with the UK Government until discussions were broken off last June because of the need to do a parliamentary deal with the Unionists.
Although it is unfortunate, to say the least, that Sinn Fein appears to be making much of the political running, it is difficult to see what other catalyst could have triggered the current activity. The assessment has been made that distasteful though Mr Adams undoubtedly is, he is also serious in what he is saying - and is probably capable of delivering.
Anyone who has met Mr Adams in recent years will have been struck not so much by what he has said, but by the way he has said it. Although he has continued to defend the political logic behind terrorist outrages with weasel words, and repeated ad nauseam the slogans of extreme nationalism, you could sense his weariness, his realisation of the futility of it all. The fact that Mr Adams has come to disbelieve much of what he says should be seen as a backhanded tribute to the doggedness, the sheer stickability of British policy.
Despite this, it is not acceptable to continue to allow Mr Adams to set the agenda. When Mr Major and his Irish opposite number, Albert Reynolds, met last month at the EC summit, they tried to regain the initiative by declaring that they would meet for substantive talks at the beginning of December and implying that Hume-Adams would not be the basis for their discussions. Since then Mr Major has reiterated his commitment to a way forward by talking only to Ulster's non-violent politicians, while Mr Reynolds has come under extreme pressure from nationalists north and south to give full backing to Hume-Adams.
Mr Major knows perfectly well that simply talking to Northern Ireland's democratic parties and getting them to talk to each other will not get him anywhere. He is also well aware that if Mr Adams is believed to be wringing concession after concession from the British Government in exchange for a ceasefire, he will provoke a violent loyalist reaction and earn the denunciation of even moderate Unionists. The idea of peace has taken hold in Ulster, but not peace at any price.
What Mr Major is engaged upon is an attempt to find
a formula for the cessation
of violence followed by a
political settlement which, through a mixture of persuasion and bullying, he can persuade the people of Northern Ireland to accept. It is, as he said on Monday, a path fraught with risk. The history of political initiatives in Northern Ireland is one of miserable failure, while the durable Anglo-Irish agreement of 1985 was a simple government-to-government deal which neither required nor won the support of a majority of Ulster's people. To the extent that the Unionists detested it, constitutional nationalists welcomed it. Although it has brought real benefits, it has in many ways reinforced the negativeness of Northern Ireland's zero- sum politics.
The risk to Mr Major also comes from his personal commitment to the process. In the past, prime ministers have accorded their Northern Ireland secretaries full pro-consular powers and allowed them to pursue political initiatives if ambition or restlessness drove them to do so. But Mr Major is staking his prime ministerial prestige and personal reputation on a gamble which, if history is a guide, must be likely to fail.
The risk, however, is surely worth taking. While there is no overwhelming reason why the next 25 years in Northern Ireland should not be like the last - the cost of sustaining the province both in economic and security terms is vast, but indefinitely bearable - it is an unutterably depressing prospect. Quite apart from the routine sufferings of Northern Ireland's people and the hopelessness of the many Catholics condemned to a life of under-class squalor, we should not underestimate the pernicious effects of IRA terrorism on life in the rest of the United Kingdom, especially in London. Although we have learnt to live with the disruptions, the intrusions and the occasional scares, the measures which as a society we have been forced to take have made us more stressed and less free than we would otherwise have been. Even the security precautions which envelop our political leaders are a degradation of our democracy which contribute to the remoteness of government.
The 3 December summit with Mr Reynolds has provided a useful focus, but is unlikely to come up with definitive answers. If it does not, we should not be too downhearted; the process now has genuine momentum. But if Mr Major is right to insist there are no deadlines, he must also realise that, just as windows of opportunity sometimes open surprisingly, they can also close.Reuse content