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

Share
Related Topics
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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Parts Supervisor & Advisor - Automotive

£16500 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the South East's leading...

Recruitment Genius: Housing Assistant

£16819 - £21063 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Account Manager - OTE £60,000

£35000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: In 2014, they launched the worl...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Design Lead

£23958 - £29282 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the North West's leading...

Day In a Page

Read Next
People struggle to board a train at the railway station in Budapest  

Even when refugees do make it to British soil, they are treated appallingly

Maya Goodfellow
 

Daily catch-up: immigration past and present, in Europe and in America

John Rentoul
Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones