A government to feel good about

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I have been watching the Dail, on and off, for more than 50 years now, and I have never before seen in those precincts such an effusion of sweetness and light as that which accompanied the election of John Bruton as Taoiseach yesterday.

Partly this was due to the general sense of relief that the parliamentary crisis was over. Even for the naturally acrimonious, a month of sustained confrontation was enough. Partly the tone was set, with magnanimity, by the loser. It had been expected that Bertie Ahern, leader of Fianna Fail, would be Taoiseach in a renewed Fianna Fail-Labour coalition. John Bruton led the Opposition in exposing the anomalies and contradictions of the relations between Fianna Fail and Labour, and this contributed mightily to the wrecking of the attempt at renewal of that coalition - and thus to the dashing of Bertie Ahern's personal hopes.

Mr Ahern might have been expected to be bitter, but if he was, he didn't let it show. In an exceptionally dignified and generous, and sometimes gently humorous speech, he did not merely wish his successful rival well, he paid tribute to his personal qualities. Those qualities are one of the main reasons why his election by the Dail was welcomed by members of all the parties represented there.

Throughout Ireland many of those who watched must have been a little puzzled by what they saw. As Norah Owen, deputy leader of Fine Gael, said in her nomination speech for John Bruton: John "is not a media-driven politician''. The Irish media don't like him and have consistently underestimated him. His immediate predecessor as leader of Fine Gael, Garret FitzGerald, had a naturally sunny personality, and also cultivated media people to good effect.

In both these respects John Bruton is less like Garret than like Garret's predecessor, Liam Cosgrave - also a bete noire of the Irish media. Liam always sounded like a man who felt it would be extremely sinful to give the public what it wants.

John is apt to sound and look the same way, especially on television. It must, therefore, have come as a surprise to the television audience to witness the esteem and affection in which John Bruton is held in the world of parliamentary politics as distinct (usually) from the politics of the media. John's parliamentary colleagues know from personal experience, over years, that he is a person whose word is as good as his bond. And they also know that that equation cannot be taken for granted in politics.

The new government has a lot going for it, quite apart from the apparently auspicious euphoria of yesterday's proceedings. The Irish economy is in better shape than it has been for 30 years, and still improving; all the indications seem to show "set fair''; tax cuts can be afforded. The coalition partners are likely to show adequate respect for one another's susceptibilities since the grisly recent fate of the Fianna Fail-Labour coalition is an adequate warning of what happens when such respect is denied, as it was by Albert Reynolds.

Some commentators are stressing the ideological gap they think will exist between Fine Gael and its left-wing partners, Labour and the Democratic Left. But a programme of government has been agreed between the three parties which should be adequate for the next two years, and this is all that is required. And Labour and the Democratic Left are quite unlikely in practice to gang up against Fine Gael.

The two left-wing parties will, after all, be contending against one another in the next general election for a significant but limited electoral resource: Irish left- wing votes. Fine Gael will not be competing in that market: Fine Gael will be competing with Fianna Fail and with realistic hopes of gaining some ground.

As far as Anglo-Irish relations are concerned, John Major will certainly not find the new government any harder to deal with than its predecessors. Even a bit easier. All three of the new governmental partners are less inclined than Fianna Fail is to prepare the way for the removal of the territorial claim contained in Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish Constitution. All three are more inclined to give serious consideration to Unionist positions than anything with Fianna Fail in it would ever be.

Unfortunately, this does not mean that what is called "the peace process" is likely to prosper during 1995. There are two distinct negotiations, often loosely regarded as making up one peace process. There are the talks between the Dublin and London governments, based on the Downing Street Declaration. These will probably go smoothly enough, under the new Dublin government, as under its predecessor, and will result in some agreed document, called Framework for Peace. But it is the other set of negotiations - that between the British authorities and Sinn Fein - that is much more likely to determine whether progress can be made from the present uneasy truce towards a real and lasting peace. And the prospects there look bleak as 1994 closes.

The real threat to what is called the peace process has almost nothing to do with whatever group of political parties forms the government in Dublin. The real threat - which will be about the same under the new Dublin government as it would have been under its predecessor - comes from the yawning gap between the expectations of Sinn Fein-IRA on the one hand and the British government on the other. Sinn Fein-IRA expect British capitulation, though it might accept this in instalments.

Martin McGuinness, on the eve of opening negotiations with British officials this month, declared: "We are Irish republicans and we enter any talks with the clear aim of ending British jurisdiction in the Six Counties". McGuinness, Gerry Adams and the other top Sinn Fein spokespersons have all stated unequivocally that until that "clear aim" is realised, Sinn Fein will not even ask the IRA to decommission any part of its weaponry.

Mr Major, on the other hand, declared this week, after the end of the Northern Ireland investment talks, that "huge progress must be made towards the destruction of IRA arms and explosives before talks with Sinn Fein could move from an exploratory to a formal basis". Not much room for compromise there.

The RUC estimates that there is a 60-40 chance that the IRA ceasefire will hold until next Easter. Easter has been an ominous period in the Republican liturgical-political-military year since 1916. There is to be an IRA convention, shortly before Easter,to consider the results of the ceasefire. Some of these results are impressive, in terms of political and propaganda gains for Sinn Fein, mainly in the Republic and in the United States. But these will weigh very little, in the judgement of Republican militants, as compared with failure to make progress, in talks with the British, in the direction of Sinn Fein-IRA's clear aim.

I shall not here attempt to prejudge the outcome of that IRA conference. But it is clear that, in the run-up to that conference, the IRA leadership, even if it still wants the ceasefire to hold, will be under pressure to show itself more militant, throu g h "the unarmed strategy" of mass-demonstrations in Northern Ireland and in other ways. The cry of "peace process in danger" will be loudly heard, and both the British and Irish governments are likely to be attacked by Sinn Fein, probably with considerabl e backing from Fianna Fail in opposition.

Sinn Fein-IRA does not care for any of the parties now in power. They distrusted Dick Spring in the outgoing coalition, and will distrust him even more in the new one. Fine Gael, for Sinn Fein-IRA, is the old enemy, "the Free Staters" or "Blueshirts", t h e party of the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921. The Democratic Left is the heir of the Workers' Party, itself the heir of "Official" Sinn Fein-IRA, the old left-leaning IRA leadership from which the Provos broke away in 1969-70. The DLs have broken with their paramilitary past, but for the Provos they remain "the stickies", an enemy force.

The new Dublin government can expect determined political assaults from Sinn Fein-IRA, probably early next year. They should be able to weather the storm, for their internal cohesion, in relation to this range of issues, is bound to be good, since Sinn Fein-IRA hates all of them, for different reasons (although there are one or two Sinn Fein fellow-travellers in Labour). Fortunately, Sinn Fein itself has no seats in the Dail.

Both the British and Irish governments would need to prepare to tighten, not to relax, security in the coming year. Whatever the IRA Convention may bring, the IRA is certain to be in a dangerous mood, on the run-up to Easter.