Hope in the silence of a Unionist

How much more precious does mute Molyneaux seem than Paisley, the nation's earache
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The Independent Online
So now falls the rotten fruit. The leak of the Irish framework document earlier in the month has led directly to the current crisis in the peace process. There has been dirty work and, behind the outward show of bluff confidence, the mood of senior ministers in London is extremely tense.

Had the leak not happened they think they would have been able to explain the proposed all-Irish bodies to the Ulster Unionists in private and in good time, and could have kept them on board. What the leak did, and was meant to do, was to provoke Unionist MPs into striking premature postures of anger and defiance from which they will now find it hard to retreat.

Hence their coldly negative language yesterday after their bad meeting with John Major on Tuesday night. David Trimble, for instance, said he was "extremely pessimistic - I think there is a serious danger that the Government has made a massive misjudgement ..."

What must worry Major as much as that sort of language is the absence of Jim Molyneaux at the Downing Street showdown. The Prime Minister's personal relationship with Molyneaux, the 74-year-old Ulster Unionist leader, has been central to the process so far. Yet, at a critical moment, Molyneaux did not make contact himself; three deputies went instead. Why?

There are as many explanations as Unionist MPs. They range from those suggesting a sort of political collapse by Molyneaux, leading to his being elbowed aside, to those who see a wise but tortoise-like tactic in the behaviour of the old man.

Those who say the game is up for him argue that Molyneaux, having promised the Unionists so much from his relationship with Major, has been cruelly exposed by the document's tone. He has been let down and finds it hard to confront the fact that - as one Belfast commentator puts it - "the nationalists get the documents and the Unionists get the flattery".

As a result they reckon Molyneaux, though still likely to stand unopposed for the party leadership in March, as he has done for the past 15 years, will bow out during this year. "Jim has been walking around for the past few days in a trance," some say. (Though how they can tell the difference between Molyneaux walking in a trance and Molyneaux just walking, I don't know.)

But James Molyneaux has been written off too many times before - he entertains himself on rainy weekends re-reading yellow newspaper cuttings announcing his political demise. And there is another, more optimistic analysis of his silence.

Perhaps he was merely keen to keep his room for manoeuvre as wide as possible. Trimble and the others who saw Major stopped only just short of announcing the death of the peace process. Molyneaux, because he was not present, was not called upon to say anything or to endorse the words of the more junior Unionist MPs.

This behaviour would square with his characteristically oblique reaction to the original leak. He chose to blame it on civil servants running amok - something he knew was nonsense, and Whitehall knew he knew was nonsense. But the result was that he was not obliged to condemn Major or the Northern Ireland Office.

So - collapse of Molyneaux, or Molyneaux playing deep game? His utter silence continues, but his career tends to the latter conclusion. Let us hope so, because if he is politically dead then so, almost certainly, are the negotiations.

Even if Molyneaux is merely lurking, though, the process remains poised at a moment of great danger.

The work by both governments since the leak has been frantically fast, and remains so, for just this reason. Major spent a large chunk of the weekend working privately on the documents, before a series of meetings with Northern Irish politicians, yesterday's cabinet committee on the subject and today's meeting of Cabinet. Then there are the hurtle of meetings planned for the weekend and, quite possibly, the official launch of the framework document next week.

This explosion of political activity reflects a widespread belief that it is now or never. Most negotiations have a natural life of their own, after which they have either to be concluded, or lose momentum and fail. The London-Dublin process is at this point; clearly there have been attempts to meet Unionist fears over the past few days, but there is a strong sense that to reopen the main areas of painfully arrived-at agreement would be impossible. The peace process would roll slowly off the road and lie upended, perhaps for another generation, in some Fermanagh ditch.

That, clearly, is what some Unionists want. But it hardly offers even the most hardline Official Unionist a happy ending. Politically, a rejection of talks would collapse the Official Unionist position into the Democratic Unionist one, and vindicate Ian Paisley.

More seriously still for them, it would leave the Unionist MPs as the group responsible for the failure of the peace process, blamed not only by the nationalists and by the British and Irish governments and Opposition parties, but by international opinion too.

If they kick Major in the teeth, who do they think will be their ally in future? Possibly, the Tories still - if they swing further right, and if they find another leader, and if he or she then wins the next election. These are hard times for the Unionists. Even so, to grasp at those three ifs would be optimistic to the point of insanity. More likely they will be left with some backbenchers, the occasional wild-eyed peer and a Times leader-writer or two; and this is not enough to offer a secure future.

These are things they know when standing quietly in the early morning light, staring at the shaving-mirror. The danger is that, as the day advances, and the Today programme starts the juices flowing, and eager reporters cluster round, they forget that this is the game to be played carefully, without inflammatory rhetoric or bitter warnings.

For they are not the leaders of a great army of disciplined middle-class militants, thirsting to die for Ulster. They are the elected representatives of a decent, worried and peace-enjoying number of people who want to stay British but who have come to realise that compromises short of a surrender of their nationality are a price worth paying.

Logic, common sense and a decent sense of proportion in human affairs all still suggest this great enterprise should still succeed. But politics can kill it. Major showed his strategy by appealing directly on television, but hot words could yet send the thing up in flames. There is nothing predetermined about the scrabbling through drafts and sub-clauses, and arguing quietly, and fudging and dodging in the higher cause. The process remains horribly vulnerable to small-seeming things like party power struggles and journalistic sabotage.

This is a moment that separates real leaders from puffed-up troublemakers. Silence in a politician is rare and, naturally, hard to interpret. But how much more precious does mute, obscure Molyneaux seem this morning than Paisley, the untuned bladder, the nation's earache. This is a moment for the breath to be held, not expended.