A victory for evasion and prevarication

Even in the absence of an agreement in Ulster, there seems less and less likelihood of a new IRA campaign
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It was supposed to be the moment of decision. But, as often in recent Ulster history, the moment passed, the decision was postponed. Tony Blair had been threatening the province's politicians with unspecified pains and penalties unless they displayed a more constructive approach. Now, the threat has been suspended.

It was supposed to be the moment of decision. But, as often in recent Ulster history, the moment passed, the decision was postponed. Tony Blair had been threatening the province's politicians with unspecified pains and penalties unless they displayed a more constructive approach. Now, the threat has been suspended.

Such messiness is a tempting target for mockery. Yet that may be too facile a reaction. The situation may be too confused to allow easy moral judgements. At first glance, the blame for the impasse would appear to lie with Tony Blair, who has been guilty of bad faith and incompetence - and Sinn Fein, who are guilty of bad faith and cynicism. But a second glance may reveal a more complex picture.

It is certainly true that Mr Blair threw away an opportunity. For a brief period in the aftermath of the 1998 Good Friday agreement, he was master of events in Ulster. He had momentum and moral authority. He appeared to have stiff-armed the Unionists into sharing power with men who had murdered their friends and constituents; the Shinners into de-commissioning their weaponry in order to secure prisoner release and a place in government.

Then everything drifted away under the hapless stewardship of Mo Mowlam. The PM must have had regular lack-of-progress reports. Yet for months, he did nothing, while the Shinners began to hope that they need not trade guns for prisoners and power. With procrastination and cunning, they could have all three.

As a result, the prospects for stable devolved government were sabotaged, and no wonder. Back in 1998, with the possible exception of some Shinners, none of the senior negotiators would have thought that the devolved institutions could survive six years of failure to decommission. Nor is it clear that they were wrong. Nominally, the institutions still exist, but in a tawdry, hollowed-out form. It is hard for them to seem convincing after so long on a life-support machine.

The delay has also undermined the moderate parties. The SDLP is almost dead, though its demise had earlier origins. By the mid 1980s, its then leader, John Hume, had decided that he was too much of a world statesman to concern himself with the minutiae of Ulster politics and the frustrations of the democratic process. So he lost interest in the SDLP. He had used it as the first stage of the rocket to propel him upwards. Its work done, he was content for the burnt-out husk to fall away. As the party disintegrated, Sinn Fein took over. On present trends, the SDLP could lose all its Westminster seats at the next election.

Mr Trimble's Unionists are not facing extinction, but they are in danger of further heavy losses which would make it impossible for them to claim the leadership of Ulster Unionism. Polarisation between Sinn Fein and Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party: surely Good Friday was meant to have a more benign outcome? Not all the senior civil servants in the Northern Ireland Office would agree. The romance of extremism can have a seductive effect. It did on Mo Mowlam, and some officials also concluded that there would be no real prospect of a deal until the Shinners and DUP confronted each other across a table.

When I first encountered that viewpoint, I was contemptuous. It seemed the sort of frivolity that could only be entertained by intellectual Englishmen, stuck in a country which they did not understand, and whiling away their exile by striking colonialist postures and dreaming up fantasies. How could anyone argue that the way to peace in Ulster lay through the destruction of moderate politics?

After all, there is wide agreement that the lack of middle-class involvement is one of the root problems of Ulster politics. As a result of recent events, that can only get worse. Middle-class Catholics who have now given up on the SDLP, but who also feel that Sinn Fein is simply too bloodstained, are likely to withdraw into private life. There is a similar reaction among middle-class Protestants. Many of them have been disillusioned by David Trimble's failure to secure decommissioning. There is also widespread disgust at the shabby treatment of the Royal Ulster Constabulary as a result of the Patten report. If the Unionist leadership could not even protect the RUC's name, many Unionists could see no point in sustaining it.

There has been a further disincentive to middle-class Unionist political involvement. Outside the political class itself, there is little enthusiasm for a devolved administration which would inevitably allow murderers to sit around the Cabinet table. So, discouraged by Mr Trimble's powerlessness and repelled by the DUPs' sectarian past, large sections of the Protestant middle class will also cultivate their gardens.

Even so, there is a Panglossian interpretation of the recent past. The civil servants may have been wildly optimistic about a Shinner-DUP deal, but that does not matter. Whatever else has happened, there have been several years of peace. It is a morally-flawed, ignoble peace, for it tolerates the para-militarisation of urban ghettos and the creation of a criminal sub-culture which could take decades to eradicate. But as a result of Good Friday, the province is no longer being crucified. Even if the Provos retain their guns, it would be very hard for them to return to war, especially after 11 September. Good Friday may not have worked as it was supposed to have done, but in a sort of way it has worked. History is rarely purist or logical. Events can sometimes stumble in a favourable direction.

Let us suppose that Tony Blair had acted as he should have done in late April 1998: moved Mo Mowlam, installed Peter Mandelson and instructed him to brook no delay from anyone. Such purity of intention and rigour of implementation might just have imposed more strain on Ulster's polity than it could have borne. In particular, the IRA would probably have split, with the war faction reverting to terrorism before the end of 1998.

It is worth remembering just how widely such a split was predicted in the immediate aftermath of Good Friday. Some of my friends were advising David Trimble to ensure that, after the inevitable breakdown, he could win the blame game, so that the next phase of the campaign against the IRA would start with the Unionists occupying the moral high ground for once.

The Unionists have never been able to occupy anything like as much of that ground as they deserve, but there seems less and less likelihood of a new IRA campaign. It may be that six inglorious years of evasion and prevarication were a necessary form of community therapy; that the province could never have leapt to peace like a young buck clearing a high fence, but had to subside into it like a grumbling old dog slowly settling in its basket.

It could be that similar thoughts have occurred to Tony Blair. He was widely expected to adopt a headmasterly tone and to castigate the province's politicians for their intransigence. In the event, his tone was more cheerful. He may have realised that the absence of an agreementwould only be serious if there were a grave risk that the vacuum would rapidly fill with blood. As that seems unlikely, the failure of Good Friday at a political level may not matter. For all its weaknesses, Good Friday seems to have delivered peace.