Leading Article: Be honest and brave, Mr Major

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The Independent Online
PEACE may seem enticingly close in Northern Ireland. The IRA might soon end its campaign of violence. The Republic of Ireland appears ready to make Ulster's Protestants a more valuable promise than anything perfidious Albion is trusted to guarantee: a veto over political change. Given such hope, revelations about secret diplomacy and ministerial casuistry should not be allowed to sabotage sensitive government exchanges with Sinn Fein.

Yet the weekend's disclosures demonstrate that duplicity will not bring peace to Northern Ireland. Economy with the truth may fool people for a while, but it is easily construed as betrayal. That way lies further bloodshed in Ulster. Any leader who is serious about a settlement must maintain a reputation for honesty.

John Major has made peace his mission. Yet Sinn Fein emerges as truthful when its account of exchanges contradicts the official version. Inevitably, ministers have had to be circumspect for fear of jeopardising the peace process. But their apparently categorical denials left little room for manoeuvre. So news of what has actually occurred has not only come as a surprise but has also greatly damaged Mr Major's credibility.

The Government is in disarray just when it should be offering solid, honest leadership. The British people, given their impatience with the continuing conflict, may be won over easily to talks with Sinn Fein. But there are right-wing Tory doubters who see an opportunity in the Government's volte-face to undermine further Mr Major's position.

The Unionists themselves are filled with fear of a sell-out. James Molyneaux, leader of the Ulster Unionists, has so far been a calming influence, confident that he and the Prime Minister have an understanding. But if Ulster Protestants become convinced that they have been betrayed, Mr Molyneaux will have little control over their anger or their actions. The Tories must overcome established Protestant distrust: Unionists remember that a Conservative, Edward Heath, imposed direct rule from Westminster in 1972 and Margaret Thatcher signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985.

It is worrying that ministers have got themselves into this predicament even before any real bargaining has begun. They have been nave in leaving themselves hostage to leaked documents and Sinn Fein's capacity to reveal the nature of communications. Such mismanagement inspires little confidence that they could be robust enough to carry off a settlement in the face of serious opposition or paramilitary violence.

Despite these signs of ineptitude and disingenuousness, there is a better chance now for peace in Northern Ireland than for 20 years. In this test of Mr Major's leadership, Labour and the Liberal Democrats must avoid scoring petty party points and should support the all-important goal of a fair and lasting settlement. The Prime Minister will have to prove himself as adroit and honest as he has already been courageous.