Leading Article: Big ideas, little hope for Northern Ireland

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The Independent Online
SUDDENLY there seems to be a plethora of new ideas to resolve the problems of Northern Ireland. Complicated constitutional models are bandied about as possible ways of breaking the deadlock. Commentators can no longer simplistically bemoan the insolubility of the conflict; they must engage in a sophisticated debate. Kevin McNamara, Labour's Northern Ireland spokesman, may be mistaken in his views but, by signalling an end to cross-party consensus, he has ended a stifling silence on the issue.

The need for a breakthrough is great. The continued IRA bombings of town centres - this week Newtownards was devastated - demonstrate the terror in which people live. Meanwhile British values are being corroded by the stalemate. The Royal Commission on Criminal Justice, which reported this week, was established after miscarriages of justice springing directly from IRA terrorism. The case of John Matthews, exiled to Northern Ireland without a public hearing, shows how the essence of the legal system has been perverted.

However, those hoping for a grand settlement are likely to be disappointed. Despite the great need for a resolution and the freshness of ideas being put forward, it looks likely that real political progress will be delayed at least until after the next British general election. The prospect for new talks looks depressingly slight. Ian Paisley is uninterested. John Major's government, well aware of its slight parliamentary majority, is in no mood to push the Unionists when the Conservatives may have to rely on their votes any day.

Anglo-Irish relations, which have been cooling for some time, became distinctly frosty this week. Pressure from the Republic to sideline stalled internal talks in favour of inter-governmental negotiations found little favour with Stormont Castle. Sir Patrick Mayhew, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, is more interested in pushing forward his own blueprint, which leans towards accommodating Unionist wishes for an internal solution. The Republic's government would not accept a solution that excluded its influence and appeased the Unionists. If Sir Patrick tried to push such a proposal through, Dublin would grow cantankerous. A modest settlement would also fall prey to the IRA.

Perhaps most important, an internal solution would not gain the trust and support of constitutional nationalists. They retain an unshaken suspicion that, deep in their bones, Unionists continue to want a return to the old days of domination. They fear that Unionists would simply act as they still do on some councils they control: take the lion's share of the fruits of government.

There are a few signs of hope. Some 3,000 people contributed to a recent review of options for Northern Ireland, chaired by Torkel Opsahl, a Norwegian academic, who reported last month. The process was hailed as proof that politics is not dead in Northern Ireland. Opinion polls found a majority (46 against 34 per cent) of Protestants in favour of giving nationalists and Unionists equal voices in a Northern Ireland state, a concept known as 'convergent government'.

However, the reality is that, for a variety of reasons and despite such initiatives as the Opsahl Commission, nothing much is likely to happen in the short term. An internal solution is deeply problematic and extension of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, which Dublin favours, is hardly likely.

A way out is vital to prevent a political vacuum. Whatever is done must address the central issue in Northern Ireland: how to modernise a state that continues to reflect the sectarian divisions and injustices entrenched at its inception. A modest beginning would be to focus attention on equalising a society still riven with unfairness: in spite of Unionist complaints of their own disadvantages, Catholics are worse off according to every economic indicator.

But that is not enough. Domestic politics must be revived in Northern Ireland, so that the lively ideas being generated can be developed. That will require strong leadership from Downing Street. Change cannot be imposed, but it cannot wait until Westminster's government has a large enough majority to govern without Unionist votes.