Steve Richards: Northern Ireland is a model for the global war on terror

'Intractable situations require an agility that makes little objective or principled sense'
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The Independent Online

Since he became the Conservative leader two weeks ago, Iain Duncan Smith has endorsed virtually every word uttered by Tony Blair. In the Commons or outside Downing Street, Mr Duncan Smith says he stands "shoulder to shoulder" with the Prime Minister in the war against terrorism.

Yet in another related policy area, Mr Duncan Smith's shoulder is moving swiftly away from Mr Blair's. Even more hastily than William Hague, whose shoulder movement was erratic, Mr Duncan Smith is distancing his party from the Government's approach to Northern Ireland. So much so, that it would be quite wrong to talk any longer of a bipartisan approach to Northern Ireland. In his first significant speech since becoming leader, Mr Duncan Smith contrasted the Government's firm approach to Osama bin Laden with its more ambiguous policies on Northern Ireland.

Mr Duncan Smith made a direct link between the two, stating with a self-confident simplicity: "We cannot allow the rule of law to be set aside in our own country at the same time as insisting that the rule of law is upheld in other countries." He was echoing the view of David Trimble, the leader of the Ulster Unionists, who sees "glaring contradictions" in the Government's attitude.

From Mr Trimble, this is fair enough. He is an active player in what is left of the peace process, trying to hold a party together as well as the frail political structure that has been put in place, or is put in place every few weeks before it has to be withdrawn again. From Mr Duncan Smith this is a further sign that as far as Northern Ireland is concerned the Tories will seek the best of both worlds, blandly expressing support for the peace process, but questioning every move that keeps that process on the road.

But Mr Duncan Smith is making a more profound error than that. Northern Ireland is not an aberration in the international crisis now happening. It points the way ahead. In this crisis, no one knows for sure what will happen next, let alone in the months and years to come. In a minor key, Northern Ireland provides a model of sorts of the soaring hopes and appalling setbacks we are all likely to experience in the next few years.

Quite possibly this is one of the reasons why Tony Blair has displayed an instinctive authority from the moment the planes struck more than two weeks ago. Because of Northern Ireland, he has had similar shocks on a smaller scale before – the bomb in Omagh while he was on holiday, the explosions at Canary Wharf at a precarious point in the peace process. This was not entirely unrecognisable terrain for Mr Blair, as it clearly was for President Bush. He had the lessons of Northern Ireland to apply in a global crisis.

Mr Duncan Smith suggests that one of the lessons to be drawn is that there can be no compromises with terrorism anywhere, especially within the United Kingdom. Yet it is precisely the type of convoluted compromises demanded by the peace process that will now be required on a grander scale. Indeed, a compromise of the most fundamental kind has already been reached: a war aim is to target countries harbouring terrorists, yet the United States has aimed to include countries in the coalition that are suspected of harbouring terrorists. These include Iran, which the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, has visited in the hope of bringing it into the fold. While the US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, warned Iran that it would have to "change some of the patterns of the past supporting terrorism", this still smacks of a Machiavellian pact. I make no criticism of this. These are the unavoidable contortions of a world that is coming to terms with a dangerously elusive threat. But it is a form of hypocrisy to expect a purity of approach in Northern Ireland while endorsing the formation of an international coalition that is the product of an extreme pragmatism.

When he was Secretary of Northern Ireland, Peter Mandelson once described dealing with the various groups in Northern Ireland as "one step forward, two steps back, a step to the side and then half a step forward". Intractable situations require an agility that makes little objective or principled sense.

The biggest step forward in Northern Ireland arose when some of the terrorists realised in the early 1990s that their acts of violence were not getting them very far. It took more than 20 years before they reached such a conclusion, and most of those who did are still wondering whether they were right. Why they are wondering is far from clear. The violence did indeed get them nowhere, except for persuading the British Government to rule with increasingly determined might. A partial relaxation of violence has secured them a degree of power in Northern Ireland that those mouthing empty words in the Welsh Assembly would envy.

Which bring us to a question that has hardly been raised in the aftermath of the US atrocities – are the sophisticated fools who perpetrated them pleased with the outcome? Some specialists suggest that Mr bin Laden will be sitting somewhere watching CNN, rubbing his hands with glee at the chaos that has ensued, the fear, the economic downturn, the political disruption. Yet the scale of the grotesque violence has produced a unity that must give even Mr bin Laden some pause for thought. In the space of a few minutes, the terrorists have detached Pakistan from the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and brought it closer to the US. Israeli leaders are talking again with Arafat. Bush, from being a defiantly parochial president, has been forced to look outwards. The fundamentalists might notice in passing that a single act has got the rest of the world talking together in a way that is unprecedented.

They are not talking especially constructively in Northern Ireland at the moment. The peace process, such as it is, looks as precarious as ever. The game of chess reaches ever more wearying and dangerous stages. Security sources claim the IRA is preparing to decommission two of its arms dumps. Gerry Adams warns that Mr Trimble's plans to collapse the power-sharing executive will make achieving disarmament much harder. Mr Trimble has no choice, since his party would not support any other stance even if he were inclined to be more conciliatory – which he is not.

After decades of manoeuvring in Northern Ireland, it has come to this. But this is better than nothing at all; it is better that the chessboard is just about in place for the parties to play their games. Perhaps there will be a dramatic and successful strike against the Taliban regime, but the second phase of the campaign against terrorists will be the more significant. One step forward, two steps back, one step to the side, half a step forward. It will take decades. There will be soaring hopes and some appalling setbacks. The diplomacy will be convoluted and pragmatic. At some point the fundamentalist fools will realise it is better to be on a chessboard playing their games than bombing the world into unity.