Deceitful, cowardly, unfair? That's politics

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The Independent Online
WHAT IS the truth worth? It is clear that John Major's government has been engaged in a sustained attempt to deceive Parliament and the British people about its contacts with the IRA. Talking to the Provisionals was something Mr Major said, would 'turn my stomach . . . we will not do it'; yet at the same the talk was going on.

And how. Nobody can fail to be struck by the contrast between the smoothly civilised prose of the quiet conversation between the IRA and London this year and the random butchery carried on all round it. Whether partial or full, whether including forgeries or not, the documents released yesterday are astonishing. They are a very rare example of the curtain being swept suddenly aside on the deal-making and realpolitik hidden behind old positions and public denunciation.

One Provo communication starts: 'We are most displeased at what we read in the popular press . . .' (if you please). Their message after Warrington expresses 'total sadness . . . The last thing we needed at this sensitive time was what happened' and expresses the hope that 'God's hand' will lead to peace and friendship. British communications stress understanding and appreciation of IRA statements, but keep asking anxiously for consistency between word and deed.

So at one level, breathtaking deception, carried on for many months. For the masters of the emotional spasm, such as the Rev Ian Paisley or Labour leftwingers, the story is brutally simple. Yet again, Tory ministers are caught lying. The revelation of duplicity was prompted by a leak via Mr Paisley's Democratic Unionists, and the documents confirm the hardline Unionist world-view of perpetual betrayal by smooth Englishmen.

But the question we started with could, in this case, be reformulated: how many lives is the truth worth? It is clear that this tentative and inconclusive dialogue could not have happened except in deep secrecy. Ministers thought it might have led to peace. It might yet. So which is more important - standards of strict honesty in public debate, or the possibility of fewer charred bodies? Mr Major's assurances will be listened to with greater scepticism in future, and that damages him. But he and Sir Patrick Mayhew acted correctly, even honourably, in their deception. I feel uneasy saying that - politicians are all too quick to find public-spirited excuses for lying. This time it is the unavoidable conclusion.

The hardline Unionist leak of the deception might seem, in the first instance, a brilliant political move. It certainly ups the ante for Mr Major: the lobbies and corridors of Westminster were thick with disloyal Tories muttering under their breath about what they would say if the peace process fails. For now, in case it works, they keep their heads down. But if things go wrong, there will be a lot of brilliantly staunch Unionism by hindsight. Then the Prime Minister's cynical and incompetent deception of the 'decent folk of Ulster' will become part of the charge-sheet against him. Unfair? Illogical? Even cowardly? Yes, but that's politics. And since things are more likely to go wrong than not to, this is a potential new problem lurking down the corridor for the Prime Minister.

Meanwhile, Sinn Fein is denouncing the Government, its private interlocutor, for bad faith. Its use of threatened leaks against the Government has been answered by more leaks. Ministers have thrown the IRA's failure to announce a ceasefire back at them. The more moderate Official Unionists are tongue-tied, while Mr Paisley bellows with righteous wrath. So, in terms of the peace process, bad news all round?

Maybe not. The hardline Democratic Unionists looked remarkably isolated yesterday. We have to distinguish between what one might call 'blood Unionists' who want the Union on grounds of history and culture and under all circumstances; and conventional democrats who simply assert the right of the majority in Northern Ireland to self-determination. The British government is in the latter camp; even among hardline Tories, 'blood Unionists' are a small and anguished rump. The Paisleyites' premature wrath may have damaged them more than anybody.

For however lurid their language, the Prime Minister has not been discredited. He may have deceived the Unionists but he has not betrayed them. He cannot simply truss up Ulster and hand it over, since any deal would have to be accepted by a majority of Northern voters and, in practice, by their more moderate political leaders. The Official Unionists, though silent and biding their time, are still in a position of real influence and have not lost patience.

Second, the signs of panic in the Sinn Fein camp do not necessarily mark the final closure of the opportunity for peace. It was always hard to envisage all parts of an extreme movement, split into cells, agreeing a peace process and not splitting. Gerry Adams is trying to bring along many angry, bitter and murderous people, and his denunciations of the British government should be treated with the same cautious scepticism as any other public statements in this process. But it is just possible that some sort of informal, ragged IRA ceasefire may be on the horizon. Unless they want to have another 25 years of death, they now have to deliver.

It is a rum thought that the revelation of duplicity by a British prime minister might actually strengthen his short-term position and help the slow shuffle towards peace-talks. But these are strange times. It is too early to panic and wrong to leap to reach for the language of denunciation. Kevin McNamara, Labour's Northern Ireland spokesman, said at the weekend that: 'What is at stake is the question of the integrity and honour of the British government.' He could not have been more wrong: it is much more important than that.