The possibility of a new engagement

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The Independent Online

Peter Hain arrived in Belfast yesterday as a new Northern Ireland Secretary to survey a new political landscape - a landscape with many gloomy features but also one not entirely devoid of hope. He should not, unlike previous Northern Ireland Secretaries in the not too distant past, spend many hours going to funerals or despatching wreathes. He will be working in a city where life is so much safer and more relaxed than it was, with more jobs, hugely increased investment in commercial property and housing and a much better quality of life.

Peter Hain arrived in Belfast yesterday as a new Northern Ireland Secretary to survey a new political landscape - a landscape with many gloomy features but also one not entirely devoid of hope. He should not, unlike previous Northern Ireland Secretaries in the not too distant past, spend many hours going to funerals or despatching wreathes. He will be working in a city where life is so much safer and more relaxed than it was, with more jobs, hugely increased investment in commercial property and housing and a much better quality of life.

Yet, for all the improvements, he will be grappling with those problems shown up so starkly by last week's election results: division, polarisation, almost complete distrust, the triumph of extremism over moderation. As ever, the lead in the peace process will be taken by Tony Blair and his chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, who have both devoted an inordinate amount of time to Northern Ireland. Mr Hain is nonetheless likely to prove more of an activist minister than his valuable but low-key predecessor Paul Murphy. At a guess, Mr Murphy's briefing to the new man was probably along the lines of: "Come a long way; fair bit left to go; it'll be difficult but not impossible, still there to play for."

Politics will now go on without David Trimble, who for a decade was central to the process, but who yesterday bade a sad farewell to politics following his Ulster Unionist Party's catastrophic election performance. With only one MP left, it now takes its place on the sidelines. Mr Trimble's woefully poor organisational ability finally caught up with him; his obvious intelligence and courageous willingness to take risks overwhelmed by the superior infighting skills of his principal opponent.

Although Mr Trimble blamed republicans for his downfall, the man who really did for him was the Rev Ian Paisley, who at 79 has lost none of his legendary, some would say low, cunning.

Sinn Fein, which also has plenty of low cunning, meanwhile confirmed in the election its pre-eminence within northern Irish nationalism. Neither the killing of Robert McCartney at a Belfast bar, nor indeed the Belfast bank robbery, have stemmed the republican advance.

Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams are not the politicians Mr Hain would have picked to work with. But the reality is that little real progress can be made without them: the deeply divided people have spoken and these are their choices. In times past,the two would most likely have opted to huddle in their respective trenches and bombard each other with sterile rhetorical projectiles. Yet they might opt instead for new engagement, with unreduced enmity but a common interest in self-government. Mr Hain is set for an interesting time forging this most unlikely of partnerships.

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