If it was so trivial, why address the nation, prime minister? : Politi cal Commentary

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A FEW weeks ago it was pointed out in this column - it did not need much percipience - that the Government's life hung by a thread. The events of the last four days have shown how perilous that state of suspension is. For some months Mr John Majorhas been relying on the good will of the leader of the Ulster Unionists, Mr James Molyneaux. Of late there were signs that Mr Molyneaux was not being wholly successful in carrying his party with him. He will be 75 in August. The candidates for the succession (Mr Ken Maginnis, Mr John Taylor, Mr David Trimble, to name but a few) were intent on showing the strength of their credentials. Some of them thought that anyway Mr Molyneaux was being taken in by the Prime Minister - that, having caught a glimpse of the frilly black underwear of power, with late-night visits to No 10 and similar excitements, the old bachelor was being altogether too trusting of his new partner. Last Wednesday, following the publication in the Times of an Anglo-Irish plan, or part of one, for joint executive authorities, Mr Molyneaux announced that it was all over. The romance was finished. Mr Major had been seeing other men in secret. Never glad confident morning again! No more late nights in No 10! As our great broadsheet newspapers have given up printing parliamentary reports, presumably because they believe they are insufficiently interesting to their readers, it may be worth summarising the exchange between Mr Molyneaux and the Northern Ireland Secretary, Sir Patrick Mayhew.

Mr Molyneaux said that, on 1 December, he had been "informed that a framework document did not exist". Yet he had just been told by the Northern Ireland Office that the Times report was based on a document of 25 November, a week before the statement had been made to him. Moreover, why were the Ulster representatives denied the opportunity at least to "inject some common sense and realism into the thinking of an obscure liaison group consisting of British and Irish civil servants who are not terribly interested in the fate of political parties or governments?"

Sir Patrick replied that "there is no agreement on a framework document. That was so on 1 December, and it is so today." On the lack of consultation alleged by Mr Molyneaux, Sir Patrick said that "over a long time", and particularly through his junior minister, Mr Michael Ancram, the Government had been "in discussions" with Mr Molyneaux's party representatives, and "we attach the greatest importance to what he has had to say".

Well, make of that what you will. However you read it, Mr Molyneaux is clearly annoyed, feels let down, betrayed even. The Government, the Opposition and the Prig Press have united to read him an impertinent lecture. Grow up! they say. Be your age! Thesethings happen in life. No one is perfect. Mr Major is doing his best. We are all doing our best.

This effort to rekindle the romance has been combined with an attack on the jealous people who tried to break it up. The paper's revelations, we are told, were - in both senses of the word - partial. They were made "out of context". And, in any case, they were shockingly irresponsible. One expects to hear this kind of thing from governments. Even oppositions may join with them from time to time in attacking a newspaper for reasons of their own. But when the papers which specialise in printing the disclosures of rancorous civil servants against, say, Mrs Virginia Bottomley (it always seems to be Mrs Bottomley) and then go on to denounce "leaks", it is time for a large drink.

These attacks have been combined with a blackguarding of the author of the story, which was entirely legitimate and gives every appearance of being wholly true. The writer concerned, Mr Matthew d'Ancona, is, it appears, not only Maltese by extraction andRoman Catholic by religion. He is also a member of the Friends of the Union, which is depicted as a uniquely sinister organisation, somewhere between the Westminster Grand Lodge and the Ku-Klux Klan. I have myself attended three meetings of the body in question: a lecture delivered by Mr Charles Moore and successive talks at the Conservative conference given by Mr Geoffrey Wheatcroft, the first of them being presided over by Lord Cranborne, the present leader of the Lords. On each occasion I emerged from the meeting without ill-effects and slightly better informed.

In all this, Mr Major has been arguing a contradictory case. On the one hand, he has been saying that the story is trivial and will affect nothing. But, on the other, he gave a ministerial broadcast which added greatly to all the fuss and served only to confirm the story's importance. Most viewers, I suspect, would have been completely bemused: not only understandably but rightly so. For there was nothing at all they could do, however extensive their fund of good will on matters Irish might have been. If Mr Major's homely countenance should have been displayed to anyone - which is doubtful - it should have been to the plain people of Northern Ireland alone.

These broadcasts have no authority, either in the Broadcasting Acts or in the BBC's Licence and Agreement with the Government. They rest on what is oddly called an aide-memoire of an agreement between the BBC and the government in 1969. This superseded an aide-memoire of 1947. In the general strike of 1926 the BBC had allowed the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, to broadcast but refused the other parties any right of reply. The aide-memoire of 1947 distinguished between "impartial" and "controversial" ministerial broadcasts but, on the latter, left it for the BBC to decide whether there should be a response. During Suez in 1956 the Corporation allowed the opposition to reply to the government, much to the Conservatives' indignation.

The aide-memoire of 1969 followed the classification of the previous document into "impartial" and "controversial" broadcasts. The former would continue to carry no right of reply. However, the latter would, and it would be automatic.

In "impartial" broadcasts ministers wish "to explain legislative or administrative policies approved by Parliament or to seek public co-operation in matters where there is a general consensus of opinion". In "controversial" broadcasts (which carry an automatic right of reply) the Prime Minister or one of his or her colleagues wishes "to broadcast to the nation to provide information on or an explanation of events of prime national or international importance, or to seek public co-operation in connectionwith such events". The IBA was not a party to this agreement, but agreed subsequently to transmit broadcasts in the second or "controversial" category alone.

So it was that Mr Major was followed by Mr Tony Blair and Mr Paddy Ashdown, all playing Mr Goody Two-Shoes. This was not only an imposition on the helpless viewer. It was also unlikely to put Humpty- Dumpty together again, at any rate at Westminster.