Calm eloquence to match Unionist anger

It takes special courage to compromise, and John Major has shown it in his quest for Irish peace Progress would be represented by a long-drawn-out series of meetings
Click to follow
The Independent Online
The pith of everything that happened yesterday occurred in a couple of minutes on the floor of the Commons. Ken Maginnis, the nearest thing the Ulster Unionists have to a moderate, poured out anger and hurt at the Prime Minister. John Major neither flinched nor apologised but came hammering back passionately for the peace process, speaking over Maginnis's head to the Unionist people themselves.

Let me incur a sneer of disbelief from the reader - the man was eloquent and moving, and sounded at last like a political leader. This is his moment and he knows it and has risen to it. If the peace process is destroyed, then one of the consequences - one of the lesser ones, admittedly - is that politically, Major is finished.

The Irish peace initiative is almost the last source of real political energy in his government. Across much of the rest of the agenda, it has nearly closed down; there are too many blockages to further radical advance and ministers are too demoralised to try. Here, though, one feels the lively sense of possibility upon which all politics depends.

Lucky political leaders are the ones confronted by challenges which match their personalities. Thus Margaret Thatcher seemed almost designed by destiny to respond to the invasion of the Falklands. From the start, the Irish process offered Major a chance to test to the limit his entirely different personality; his empathy, his patience, his subtle weaving between different viewpoints, his staying power, his charm.

Other possible Prime Ministers of our era would not have got this far. Had Labour won the 1992 general election, the peace process would not have inched to where it has. That Labour Government would have, no doubt, been keen to try its best, but its ``green'' posture over the past decade would have aroused intense suspicion among the Ulster Unionists, who would have been able to look (however vainly) to protection from a Tory party in full oppositionist mode.

Nor would a Thatcher-led government have got this far with this issue. She would not have been brave enough. To reject the tentative outstretched hand offered by militant Republicanism as a bloodstained and hypocritical one would have been so easy - the applause in the Commons and in the Tory press would have been exultant. It takes a special kind of courage to compromise and to risk being made a fool of; this courage Major has, and she hadn't.

However, the flip side of this is pretty clear to everyone, too. These are Major's qualities and this is his moment; if he fails over this, then he fails, period.

And, of course, in the shadows there is the usual band of would-be Tory assassins, not quite brave enough speak out now, thank you, but drooling with excitement at the thought of plunging the knife into Major's back if it fails. The Hindsight Heroes - let us leave them to their sour fantasies.

More important just now are the Unionist political leaders. They are faced with peace, a condition which, unlike war, requires compromise, and they are not yet ready to accept that consequence. They protest that they are shocked by how ``green'' and how hard on them the two governments' discussion document is.

No doubt they are genuinely alarmed by some of its wording. But in the end, it is the moderation of their old enemies that has damaged them more. Had the Provos failed to hold the ceasefire together; had the Irish government refused to get rid of its territorial claim; had the document been something to be imposed without the consent of the Plain People of Ulster... how easy things would have been.

But - oh, damn - things are not so simple. Confronted by the political language of the document - words such as settlement, compromise, agreement, consensus - the Ulster Unionists retort with their traditional language of conflict, using words such as surrender, sell-out, conspiracy, treachery, disaster. Ian Paisley even manages to describe this attempt to build peace as ``a declaration of war''. (Though to be fair, the old man hasn't quite been himself since those Fenian scum played their dirtiest trick so far, and stopped killing people. Are there any depths to which these people won't stoop?)

This mismatch of language is not difficult to explain. Perhaps the best image is that of a frontier town facing a hostile nation, and being told by its imperial capital that, in future, it cannot really count on reinforcements. It is on its own and must, over time, find a way to live peaceably with the enemy.

Thus the Ulster frontiersmen can no longer count on the might of Westminster in their struggle against Dublin, but are expected to sit down themselves with the Romish Horde. Their position is transformed from a majority to a minority. To the outgunned and outnumbered, promises of vetoes and agreement aren't much reassurance.

But the central problem for the Unionist leaders is that their people are no longer at war, so the language of conflict sounds increasingly meaningless. And without that language, what have the Ulster Unionists to say? Do they return to the straightforward language of bigotry; or do they rejoin the modern, liberal world?

There is still a good chance they may choose the latter way, though it will surely be a long, slow business. There were hot words spoken yesterday, but there were bound to be. The question is, how strongly did they reverberate through the Unionist people?

It is frankly impossible to know, but we shall know soon enough. There will be the predictable knots of angry zealots; but how many others will be reading and watching at home? We are going to have to discriminate between the diehards and a population on the warpath.

How many will take to the streets behind Paisley? Not so many as in 1985, I guess. Will there be another Protestant workers' strike? I guess not. Will the Protestant paramilitaries march in balaclavas, or set up roadblocks? Again, I guess not.

Perhaps it is silly even to guess. There are far more difficulties to overcome than have been encountered already, and this process remains very delicate. Any of the above, or an IRA breakaway, or a republican campaign of civil disobedience, could destroy the work of the past two years.

The best hope now is for nothing much to happen. Progress would be represented by a messy and long-drawn-out series of meetings, perhaps on the basis of a somewhat different document. If the governments are sensible, they will be proud, but not too proud, of their prose.

So this is not a time for celebration or panic, still less for final conclusions. All that one can say is that thus far, John Major's undramatic and unwearying persistence, matched by the other calm heroes on all sides, has taken us forward. Is he a Unionist? Well, he doesn't seem to me really to understand Ulster Unionism. If he did, obviously, he wouldn't have dared go this far. So, in a spirit of caution - thank God for ignorance.