Peace is best approached with humility

If glitches are part and parcel of the process, what on earth was Blair doing raising expectations?
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It's not the peace process in Northern Ireland which has been harmed by Tuesday's failure to achieve a breakthrough, it is really the amour propre of the two prime ministers who had flown to Belfast to proclaim it. For Bertie Ahern, the Irish Prime Minister, to declare yesterday that he always foresaw problems with General John de Chastelain's decommissioning statement but failed to get hold of the general before he made it is really a bit feeble for a head of government.

But then for Tony Blair, for whom Tuesday was intended to be a particularly special occasion coming just after his heart spasm, to pronounce that it was just another example of the "glitches" that beset negotiations in Northern Ireland is even more pathetic in its way.

If glitches are part and parcel of the process, what on earth was he doing raising expectations and orchestrating a performance when he wasn't sure that the musicians would play in tune or even from the same score? He'd have been better just keeping in the background and letting the key players hold the centre stage.

Deadlines and timescales are as dangerous for peace as they are for war, as anyone who has been involved in the Middle East will tell you. In all the accusation and counter-accusation that still inflames the issue, it is at least arguable that the Palestinians and Israelis could have reached final agreement at Taba in 2001 if it had not been for the electoral deadlines imposedin Israel and the US.

If one does feel more optimistic about the future in Northern Ireland than in the Middle East it is not because the mutual hatreds are any the less within our kingdom or even because one has more faith in the political process here. It is because the benefits of peace have taken hold to a point where it is almost inconceivable that there will be a return to the gun and bomb.

And if one is still cautious about believing the continued optimism emanating from No 10, it is not just because that is what the Prime Minister would say (and want to believe), but because the benefits of peace in Northern Ireland have not entrenched themselves sufficiently in the form of jobs and prosperity to let bygones become bygones. While the Roman Catholic community seems to have gained a greater spring to their step, the working class Protestants appear to have become progressively more demoralised.

In so far as this is a political problem, then there is no real reason why it should not find a political solution, in the ballot box if not in backroom negotiation. And if it doesn't find a ready solution that keeps the Ulster Unionists able to hold power in Stormont, then that does not automatically mean a return to violence.

But in so far as David Trimble's hesitations reflect a real difficulty of selling the next stages of the political process to a disabused Unionist constituency, political deals such as that choreographed for Tuesday won't provide a real answer. The road to peace will continue to be not just rough, but zig-zagged.

The point is important not just in Northern Ireland. The Americans have got the stick for the failures of reconstruction in Iraq, but only this month there were demonstrations against the UN administration in Kosovo, complaining of the lack of perceived economic progress. Bosnia is still only inching to viability. And we've all heard of the difficulties in Afghanistan, for which both the UN and Nato are responsible.

The difficulty is only partly the commitment of resources. Northern Ireland has had more of its share of goodies from the common UK purse. Bosnia and Kosovo have had, by historical standards, sizable sums devoted to their reconstruction. Money matters, of course. The much deeper question is how you create the conditions in which a society can be energised.

In the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall it all seemed so easy. You removed the dead hand of communism and the rigidities of the Eastern bloc and democracy would flower almost of its own accord. And indeed it has in most of the old Comecon countries. But it hasn't, or not nearly to the same degree, in the former members of the Soviet Union in central Asia, where oil, continued Russian influence and now US military alliances against terrorism have complicated a picture quite historically different.

And now that the first blush of post-Cold War idealism has passed, we have moved on to a new and even more sweeping notion of "humanitarian intervention" to bring so-called "failed states" from their primeval darkness into the light through the force of Western arms. It's a world view, seductive in its idealism and dangerous in its effect, as we are discovering. For it is based, unlike the East European revolutions, not on helping people who are doing it for themselves but on changing structures "top-down" from a view of the world that requires no understanding of the individual circumstances on the ground.

During the invasion of Iraq, Tony Blair, when asked why he wasn't invading other tyrannical regimes, cheerfully replied, "I don't because I can't, but when you can, you should." On Tuesday he was talking of Northern Ireland in more modest terms. "As always, we will try, try and try again." Between the two approaches, I prefer the latter. Those who talk of bringing peace are better for doing it with humility.