The Sketch: Simon Carr

Time to remember the PM's soundbite that kicked off NI peace process
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The Independent Online

"This is no time for soundbites. The hand of destiny is on my shoulder."

It is time to remember the Prime Minister's self-contradicting soundbite that kicked-off a Northern Ireland peace process some three years ago.

It was a cosmic egg of a statement for New Labour. It was the third way of statements. It echoed the deepest contradiction hidden in the heart of New Labour policy. Squared circles, reconciled opposites, lions lying down with lambs, and every other sort of philosophical bollocks are central to this government's strategy of being liked by all the people all the time. It doesn't work in the long run, and Northern Ireland will demonstrate that to anyone who doubts it.

It's not just Northern Ireland. We see it everywhere we care to look – even in yesterday's Home Office questions.

In the matter of police numbers, Eric Forth pointed out that other cities in the world have many more police per head of population than Mr Blunkett's most optimistic projections. The Home Secretary tried to reconcile fewer police with a war on crime: "Effective policing is as important as numbers."

Vincent Cable observed that recruitment progress in London had been entirely negated by police officers taking early retirement. Mr Blunkett offered decisive action: he would listen to suggestions from either side of the House.

Humphrey Malins pointed out modestly that it was he who had warned the government its Anti Social Behaviour Orders would be a flop. "Over 5,000 were projected and the fact is that just over 200 have been made." Mr Blunkett replied derisively: "Here we have someone who now believes that they are a failure even though over 200 have been issued!" Er, yes?

How about the charge that there were far fewer police officers than when Labour came to power? He said that he had, last week, given "a clear commitment to a rapid improvement of recruitment and retention of police officers."

Belying it all, there was a statement on Northern Ireland prompted by David Trimble's resignation as First Minister of the province. For those new to the story, he was leaving in protest as the IRA's refusal to give up their arms caches, an undertaking brokered by the Prime Minister in an eyecatching initiative early in his reign when he assured Mr Trimble that decommissioning would start immediately.

MPs pointed out that while Sinn Fein had achieved all their objectives – including the release of IRA terrorists and the appointment of sometime terrorists to ministerial office – neither an ounce of Semtex nor a single gun had been handed in so far. These were characterised as "cheap debating points". And "grandstanding" (government cries of "shameful").

John Reid hid an acknowledgement of this central fact deep in his speech. "Decommissioning has not been commensurate with progress on other sides. That's what should concern us," he said, shockingly adding, "not so much the resignations of the gentlemen opposite."

He continued: "When things are done early, in good faith and in good heart, it is better than when there is continual pressure to do them."

Government ministers are no longer quite new to government. They know the difference between promise and delivery, and glimpse the gulf between them.

These ministers thought they were operating puppets, but now they can see that the strings are a mile long and the wind is getting frisky.