Courageous caution that will bolster Irish peace

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The Independent Online
AFTER 10 days of near-peace in Northern Ireland, a blizzard of images, wild claims, lively political theatre and the silence of millions of people holding their breath, how are we doing? The confusion seems great: is John Major bungling or crafty? Who's fooling whom? Above all, is this a short lull before the resumption of murder, or is it for real?

On the big question, all we can do is reject any idea that the answer is already fixed. History doesn't run along rails and everything depends on the courage and imagination of fallible, flesh-and- blood leaders.

What we can safely say is that John Major continues to look like the right man in the right place. Some may find that a curious judgement. And at one level his behaviour has seemed surreal. He starts by demanding that the IRA ceasefire be described by it as 'permanent', but also says that he will judge deeds rather than words. Having, none the less, stuck to the importance of the word, the Government then seems to waver, suggesting that it will be enough for Sinn Fein to agree that the Irish government's interpretation of the IRA statement is correct. This happens. But Mr Major seems unimpressed.

Then Gerry Adams, after meeting Albert Reynolds and John Hume in Dublin, puts his name to a statement describing Sinn Fein as being 'totally and absolutely committed to democratic and peaceful methods'. Still not enough, says London. The Northern Ireland Secretary, Sir Patrick Mayhew, makes mildly encouraging noises. The US Vice-President chips in. In Ulster, troops patrol without berets and pose with children. A few road-blocks disappear. The loyalist gunmen make cautious, but not menacing, noises.

Still Mr Major hesitates. It has become almost funny, as if he were standing, drenched by a storm, muttering grimly: 'There are certain elements of precipitation in the situation but I am not yet convinced it is raining.'

Well, he will move soon. The British government is very close to accepting that the IRA's intention is for a permanent ceasefire, according to senior Whitehall fixers. It seems that this acceptance will be announced and that there need not be much problem about backdating the time before which talks involving Sinn Fein cannot start.

John Major originally used the phrase 'within three months'. To that extent the 'ticking clock' image is a misleading one. But Mr Major's caution has been valuable. Had the ceasefire been followed by a quick sequence of apparently co- ordinated political moves - click, click, click - Unionist suspicion might have turned to panic. As it is, even the loyalist paramilitaries are starting to sound a little like would-be politicians.

There is a pattern in British government behaviour that will probably become familiar over the coming months and which is worth briefly dwelling on. Nationalist impatience on the permanence issue will be followed by nationalist impatience about many other matters - troop levels, prisoners and so forth. Mr Major will be regularly abused for his tardiness, his lack of imagination, his failure to 'seize the moment'. The complaints will be rude and self- righteous in tone from Sinn Fein, wounded-statesmanlike from Mr Hume and (let us hope) sporadic and sotto voce from Dublin.

Much of the time, Mr Major will hunch down and ignore them. London's view of how long this process will take is rather different from Dublin's: British ministers envisage a terribly slow and cautious sequence of modest moves and counter-moves. This is because they have to try to mimic the thinking of the Official Unionists - without them, there can be no hope of a settlement. Mr Major is temperamentally suited to this job. In his innate caution, nostalgia for lost decency and suspicion of rhetoric, he is not so unlike a younger version of Jim Molyneaux - even down to the slight physical stiffness and determined lack of style.

Because they share a cast of mind, the close working relationship between them is not simply a marriage of convenience: when Major stalked out of the presence of Ian Paisley, he was making a gesture of contempt with which Molyneaux almost certainly sympathises.

The result has been central to the story of the past 10 days: compare the current split in Unionism between politicians and ranters with the united Paisley- Molyneaux front in 1985 against Margaret Thatcher's Anglo-Irish Agreement. Today, Molyneaux frequently compares Major favourably with Thatcher. And the leathery old Ulsterman is admired by the British government: 'Jim has been immensely courageous and statesmanlike,' says one minister. Some of Major's cabinet colleagues are privately scared about what is happening; but if any British leader can bring the majority of Unionist opinion to negotiate with nationalists, then Major is the one for it.

Dublin agrees. Any irritation or bewilderment about British tardiness so far is quickly balanced by handsome private tributes. And whatever the British unease about the Adams handshake, it is accepted in London that Albert Reynolds's Forum for Peace and Reconciliation is at least partly intended to draw Sinn Fein into mundane politics before the talks proper start, so making any early backsliding difficult. Both sides are showing notable self-control and moderate language.

The two governments are grinding slowly through their 'framework document', intended to establish a common position by the time all the parties are invited to sit down. The biggest area of difficulty is in the part of their text covering the constitutional attitude of the two capitals to Northern Ireland - the touchy matters of the Government of Ireland Act and the Republic's constitution.

But it is already clear that a complex series of trade-offs is under way. There will be no Unionist sell out: the framework document is not intended as a blueprint for a new Northern Ireland but rather an instrument to get people round the table. The Governments' hope is to act as the joint moral authority upon both Sinn Fein and the majority of the Unionists, helping them to compromise about the running of Northern Ireland (if not their nationality and dreams).

So, to return to the question that started this column, how is it going? The answer must be: not at all badly. The Irish government is keeping Sinn Fein aboard. The British government has at least the suspended disbelief of majority Unionist opinion. Paisley is out. The two governments are still close together. Peace is inching gingerly forward.

It is easy to snort. It is easy to be distrustful - to distrust the bona fides of Irish republicanism, to assume that Reynolds goes to sleep muttering 'Brits out' and chuckling nastily. It is easy to distrust Major's caution and translate it as intransigent Unionism. But trust is what this is all about. Throughout this many-sided game there are people waiting to strike and claim their reward when it fails - gunmen; hardliners from both traditions; even right-wing Tories who would like Major out of office. But most people are still holding their breath and hoping. And the politicians, so far, haven't failed them.