Leading Article: Deal now, pay in blood later

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The Independent Online
MINISTERS may dispute the semantics, but there has certainly been a deal buying the support of the nine Ulster Unionist MPs for John Major's beleaguered government. James Molyneaux, the UUP leader, expects the Anglo-Irish Agreement to wither. Is Mr Molyneaux deluding himself after years of frustrated opposition to the 1985 treaty, or has there been a secret, sinister development? Is the Prime Minister indeed prepared de facto to abrogate the agreement to save his political skin?

At first glance, the details of the apparent deal are not particularly dramatic or alarming. Indeed, they may increase the chances of peace by convincing alienated Protestants that the ballot box can do more for them than the bullet. The problem is the secrecy surrounding talks between the Government and the Unionists. It is time for Mr Major to stop the speculation and be clear about his agenda for Northern Ireland.

Unionists believe they have secured three concessions. First, a select committee on Northern Ireland would be created in the House of Commons, so giving locally elected MPs better opportunity to scrutinise government policy. Second, legislation covering Northern Ireland would in future be passed as Acts of Parliament instead of being pushed through without amendment as orders in council. Both these changes would increase democratic accountability and the visibility of Northern Ireland at Westminster.

The third expected concession is more problematic. Unionists would like extra powers for Northern Ireland's 26 district councils. The history of Unionists abusing their control of local government makes this much more controversial: the republic's government would find it difficult to stomach. Nationalists would be angered by the drift from an inter-governmental process towards an internal settlement.

But the real worry concerns what happens after this. There are legitimate fears that Mr Major may effectively rat on the Anglo-Irish Agreement. The Unionists have him over a barrel. Little more than a year after winning the general election, he is dependent on their votes. It may be, if the economy fails to recover quickly, that this Government will try to run its full course. That means the Conservatives, assuming continuing by-election defeats and internal division, may need Mr Molyneaux's parliamentary troops for almost four years. The price of support may rise as the Government's majority falls.

There is a long history of both nationalist and Unionist MPs extracting large concessions for keeping governments in power. Charles Stewart Parnell was the most adept. He brought down a Liberal government and its Tory successor before extracting the promise of an Irish Home Rule Bill in 1886 in exchange for keeping Gladstone in office. More recently, Labour clung to power until May 1979 with Ulster Unionist support: five new parliamentary seats were subsequently created for Northern Ireland.

If the Anglo-Irish Agreement is allowed to wither through neglect and a lack of enthusiasm, the cost of keeping Mr Major in No 10 will be high. The agreement has bolstered constitutional nationalism at the expense of Sinn Fein. Without Dublin's policing of the border, the IRA cannot be defeated. Co-operation from the republic's government has guaranteed Irish diplomatic support, particularly in the US, for British policy in Northern Ireland. A serious political vacuum would develop without the agreement, fostering support for the IRA. The price of saving the Conservatives would be paid in blood and tears.