Caution: dogged negotiator at work

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The Independent Online
THIS IS what John Major is good at, this is what John Major is for. He may lack grand vision or eloquence. He is confined by a small and unreliable parliamentary majority. But whatever his weaknesses, Mr Major is a deal-maker, a natural reconciler, a dogged negotiator. His appetite for returning yet again to the search for a deal in Northern Ireland, clearly evident in the Commons yesterday, is good news.

There are, it seems, concrete proposals from Mr Major for the constitutional parties to discuss. Their status and provenance are obscure. But their very existence must lead us to hope that the Prime Minister would risk his narrow party position for the greater public good.

For he is dedicating himself to talks which, if they move at all, will eventually put pressure on Ulster Unionism, with unpredictable and possibly dangerous consequences. He is doing this, presumably, because he sees the small chink of light that the SDLP leader and would-be peacemaker, John Hume, has been advertising. It is inconceivable that Mr Major does not know from his own sources what Mr Hume says and what Sinn Fein mutters: that the IRA leadership is tiring of the murder business and wants a way out.

It is equally clear that unless a political deal is done soon, it may not be do-able. The question of whether Sinn Fein's Gerry Adams can deliver the IRA is a serious one. For now, he thinks he can. But can the Unionist politicians deliver the Ulster Freedom Fighters? Once upon a time, in the days of the so-called 'Ulster Resistance', there was a clear link between some MPs and paramilitaries. Now the Unionists talk about a generation of young killers beyond control, the poisoned spawn of sectarian war, people as open to gentle persuasion as the Islamic suicide bombers of Lebanon.

Terrible indeed. But who provided the barricade of rhetorical apartheid behind which the weekend's obscene 'trick or treat?' killers grew up? Whose bellowing anti-Catholic paranoia echoes thunderously through the estates where 'loyalist' gunmen never really grow up? Rightly, we treat Sinn Fein as a pariah, so long as the IRA killing goes on. But sooner or later, if they are serious about peace, some Unionists are going to have to kneel down and search their own souls.

And some will, and some are clean anyway. The great task ahead for Mr Major and his ministers is to draw the emerging Irish nationalist consensus out in such a way that decent Unionists might consider it. What is that consensus? That there should be an end to violence in return for which Sinn Fein gets a place at the negotiating table; and that the future of Northern Ireland be decided by referendum. There are relatively few points of principle, it seems, between the Hume-Adams proposals and the Irish Government's six points, which Mr Major has cautiously welcomed.

Mr Hume respects Mr Major, and vice versa. Mr Hume is not one of those who fears that the Prime Minister would destroy the prospects for peace to defend his own parliamentary position, underwritten by Unionism. There was a note of genuine hurt and bafflement about Mr Hume's weekend media appearances when he asked why he had not been invited to discuss his peace proposals with Mr Major before the Prime Minister rejected them.

But that shows navete on Mr Hume's part. Mr Major's first job is to get the Unionists on board. Even if he finds the nationalist points of principle worth discussing, he cannot afford to let the Unionists suspect that he would flirt with a nationalist agenda. He feels he must allow them no excuse to paint him as the man who danced with the man who danced with the man who danced with the IRA.

The Prime Minister said as much, lightly coded, when he told Mr Hume in the Commons yesterday: 'I have to make a judgement as to whether the actions that are taken (ie, your talks with Mr Adams) will lead to consent throughout every aspect of the community (ie, the Unionist hardliners) . . .' While it may seem unfair that peace talks, to succeed, must be hijacked by the British and Irish governments, and the nationalist pioneers snubbed, that is the reality.

It is early in this horribly difficult process. Is it even theoretically possible to find a formula that allows republican murderers the excuse they seem to be looking for to stop, but which is not then immediately rejected by paranoid Unionist murderers? It might be brought nearer by using talks between all the constitutional parties to agree proposals similar to those being discussed by nationalists, and then taking those directly to the whole Northern Irish electorate.

This may be what Mr Major is working towards. He is presumably keeping one eye open for a sudden IRA ceasefire announcement, and the political pressure that would then immediately increase. He needs to have his own process on the table before that happens. Otherwise he would be unable to persuade Unionists because he would seem merely the follower of a nationalist agenda - even if that agenda proposed the slow death of old-style nationalism.

These are all boys' games, all about 'face'. But face matters, in Northern Ireland above all. One day, if all went unexpectedly, exhilaratingly well, Mr Major would have to lose face in the eyes of some Unionist paranoiacs. It could not be avoided: British ministers would have to sit round a table with Sinn Fein. However cautiously they had got there, however many guarantees they had amassed, they would be denounced and threatened for their treachery. That day may never come. The probabilities are stacked against it. But if it does, John Major will have accomplished something extraordinary and will deserve extraordinary support. In the meantime, he has grown a bit bigger in office and deserves some quiet and moderate applause for that.