Leading Article: A blueprint for stalemate in Ulster

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The Independent Online
WITH a certain symbiotic predictability, the Ulster Unionists are, like Sinn Fein, returning to the ossified position they occupied before last December's Downing Street Declaration. Though not morally equivalent to the republican party, their refusal yesterday to attend talks with the Irish government suggests that James Molyneaux's party has abandoned any pretence of breaking the deadlock.

Its 'Blueprint for Stability' advocates a devolved government - combining majority rule with a Bill of Rights - that would entrench Unionist hegemony. Effectively, nationalists would have to content themselves with a brake on power, but little access to the levers that control the state. These proposals fail to address Roman Catholic alienation in Northern Ireland and would not produce peace.

Until recently, Mr Molyneaux had been equivocal about the declaration, wary of being cast as intransigent. These past few months have been a rare period for Northern Ireland's politics, when most participants have felt the need to demonstrate some flexibility. But Sinn Fein has failed to stop the IRA's nihilistic violence. Last weekend's Ard Fheis made clear that the party remains a fundamentally militaristic movement. Sinn Fein has now provided ample excuse for others to retreat to the status quo ante.

Mr Molyneaux feels free to write the Declaration's obituary, having desisted from killing it off himself. He can blame Gerry Adams and the IRA for that murderous act. The leader of the Ulster Unionists, nervous about being outflanked by his hardline rival, Ian Paisley, and the Democratic Unionists, has been granted a welcome opportunity to reassert his Unionist credentials in advance of the European elections.

There is a danger that the Irish and British governments will give up hope: neither can be accused of not trying. John Major - faced with more by-election losses and greater dependence on the nine Ulster Unionist MPs - may be tempted to expend less energy on the peace process and keep Mr Molyneaux happy with a steady flow of concessions. Albert Reynolds, the Irish premier, might content himself with having done his best.

But neither leader should be too depressed by the setbacks of the past few days. The Downing Street Declaration may be mistakenly seized on by some republicans as evidence that Britain can be bombed into concessions. But it has brought Dublin and London closer and remains an important statement of principle for the future of Northern Ireland. Over time, it may have an effect on attitudes and aspirations that is more significant than can yet be discerned.