Labour's offer to Sinn Fein was not naive nor a gaffe

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All the main parties this week will expend time, tens of thousands of words, and a great deal of energy proving how when in government they would shape events - and virtually none on how events will shape them. Yet it's the second that may prove, at least initially, the greater question. Just think of how the decisions that will bear down most immediately on an incoming Labour government will be less about changing Britain than responding to an external and fast-moving set of circumstances over which they have only limited control, with which any party in power would have to deal, and of which no potential Labour cabinet member has any ministerial experience: the hand-over of Hong Kong; a European agenda dramatised by the imminence of the Amsterdam summit, the pace of monetary union, and the 1998 British presidency of the EU; and, perhaps sharpest of all, Northern Ireland.

Mo Mowlam's observation, in a BBC Radio Ulster interview at the weekend, that there would be a "high possibility" of Sinn Fein joining inter-party talks when they resume on 3 June if they called a ceasefire now, is already being used by her critics as evidence that Tony Blair's Northern Ireland spokeswoman doesn't understand this simple truth - and thinks that by waving a wand she can wish peace on Northern Ireland. It really demonstrates quite the opposite. For all the gibes from Unionists and the political right about her "naivety", Dr Mowlam's remarks don't wash. She didn't make new policy. Nor did she modify a key condition that she and Blair have already made clear: for a post-ceasefire Sinn Fein to enter talks, there would have to be evidence that the IRA had ceased for a significant period surveillance and targeting operations. And once a decision had been taken to admit them, the republicans would have to sign up unequivocally to the Mitchell principles, which include renunciation of violence as a means of achieving their ends and a progressive hand-over of arms during the talks. Instead, Dr Mowlam's remarks remind the republicans first that Labour, like the present government, would ideally like to see Sinn Fein in talks, and second, that if they are to have any chance of joining them early the IRA would do well to start its ceasefire now. Indeed, she was explicit in saying that a ceasefire in - say - mid-May would not be early enough to justify Sinn Fein's inclusion in the talks by 3 June. She didn't consult Tony Blair before her interview, because she didn't have to; strikingly, moreover, Downing Street and the Northern Ireland Office did not, after a period of silent hesitation, join in the denunciation. In other words, Dr Mowlam knew exactly what she was saying.

This is more typical than her detractors allow. There has been speculation both outside - and more covertly within - her own party over whether Dr Mowlam would in fact be Blair's first Northern Ireland Secretary. Her invariably male critics like to point to a mildly gaffe-sprinkled past before she took the job. A Blair loyalist from the very first, they like to mutter, but is she quite up to it? A good deal of such speculation is based on a kind of subliminal sexism: Northern Ireland is boys' stuff, it seems to say. How could a woman, especially in as un-PC a society as Northern Ireland, be installed at Hillsborough as a real live Secretary of State? But she has dropped few, if any, clangers in Northern Ireland; given the extreme sensitivity of every political statement there, that alone is quite an achievement. And she has also impressed by her energy, her seriousness, her detailed understanding of the brief's mind-bending complexities and the frequency of her trips to the province. It's now pretty well certain that Blair would indeed appoint her, and probably give her the unflashy but skilful Welshman Paul Murphy as her political minister of state.

So far, so good. But the fact that Dr Mowlam is indeed well up to the job doesn't mean, as she knows better than anyone, that an incoming Labour government has a magic solution. It suits Martin McGuiness, as he did yesterday, to imply that Tony Blair will be a much easier touch than John Major. But that underestimates not just Blair and Dr Mowlam but also their understanding of the formidable obstacles in the way of even of a brand new government trying to make a fresh start. It's true that if Labour had a big majority, it could not be held prisoner by the Ulster Unionists in Parliament. But that's not the Unionists' only leverage: inclusive talks mean little or nothing if they don't include the Ulster Unionists. And while the UUP leader, David Trimble, has not gone as far as the DUP's Ian Paisley in saying he would never sit down with Sinn Fein, he has set a series of formidable conditions, including decommissioning of arms as a precondition of talks.

The Ulster Unionists' strength - relative to that of the DUP - after the general election, and in the local elections which follow, could yet decide how full a part Mr Trimble's party will play in the talks. The more ground Paisley gains, the bleaker the outlook may prove to be. Drumcree looms in July, and while yesterday's peaceful march in the Lower Ormeau was a tentative sign of hope, it could turn once again into a show of the sort of Orange strength that could yet be deployed if a Labour government were ever tempted to bypass them: the party's folk memory is still haunted by the 1974 Ulster Workers' strike that was faced by Merlyn Rees three months after coming into office. Nor are the republicans' intentions utterly clear, for all Mr McGuinness's smooth words yesterday. Some ministers had expected the IRA to declare a ceasefire a few months before polling day to put a fragile government on the spot: the fact that they didn't may indicate that there is still a powerful faction in favour of shunning dialogue.

One possibility is that the IRA will wait to see, if Labour wins, what Dr Mowlam does about potential confidence-building issues dear to nationalist hearts - such as transfers of prisoners, responsibility for Bloody Sunday, and the detention of Roisin McAliskey - all of which she has said she will consider in office. And even if they call a ceasefire after that, it could be that, as the events of the past three years demonstrate, this would be only the beginning. The only certainty is this: not just Dr Mowlam but Tony Blair is committed to trying to revive the peace process. Blair speaks about it more in private than in public, but it is now clear that he sees Northern Ireland among his highest priorities. That much John Major has bequeathed to his successor.

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