If the Government had been caught out in such inconsistency on any other matter - its plans for the Welfare State, for example - the protests would have been loud and eloquent. Yet last week Sir Patrick's admissions provoked only the predictable bellow from Ian Paisley. Nobody else - Tory, Labour, Liberal Democrat, the leader writers of national papers, the signers of petitions and protest letters - managed more than a squeak. Why? Because they all thought it terribly clever of Sir Patrick to say one thing while doing quite the opposite? Not really. The truth is that in England, Scotland and Wales only a politically insignificant minority cares a fig about the future of Northern Ireland. People want an end to wrecked shopping centres and maimed children, an end to security alerts and bag searches, an end to the sheer tedium of hearing and reading about it.
The questions should come thick and fast. What, if the Government and Sinn Fein were to hold 'exploratory dialogue', would they talk about? Would the IRA be required immediately to hand over weapons and ammunition? How, otherwise, could ministers be sure that the required 'cessation of violence' was indeed permanent? Will there be an amnesty for convicted terrorists? If so, will the bombers of Warrington still be pursued? Will those who bombed the Shankill Road? Will those responsible for the Greysteele massacre? Nobody has bothered to raise these questions because nobody is interested. The British, particularly their elected representatives, want a miracle cure for Northern Ireland; if it can all be done in secret, so much the better because they need not then trouble their heads about it.
Sinn Fein has only one aim: the end of the partition of Ireland. Now that the Cold War is over, the British strategic interest in retaining a foothold on the island has disappeared - only pain, trouble, expense and an unreliable block of votes in Parliament are left. Irish unity, therefore, is also by far the best solution for the British Government, if only it can somehow cajole the Unionists into agreement. In its heart it may be closer to Sinn Fein than either the Irish government (which has many private doubts about the merits of acquiring a large Protestant minority) or the nationalist community in the North, of whom only a third, according to a poll last week, favour outright union with the Republic.
But is the end of partition really the solution? The issues in Northern Ireland are different, but not significantly so, from those in many other parts of the world. They are, as one Ulster historian has put it, 'about political power and who should wield it . . . about the relationship of people to land'. If the Ulster Protestants were black or brown we might see this more clearly. We seem to accept that partition is right for the Indian subcontinent or for Cyprus or for Yugoslavia. Why do we tend to think it self-evidently wrong for Ireland? It kept a kind of peace for the better part of half a century. The persistence of gerrymandering and discrimination caused the two communities in the North to lose trust in each other and in the governments at both Stormont and Westminster. Then they turned to paramilitaries for support.
There is no miracle cure. Northern Ireland's problems will be solved only when its people trust democracy and elected politicians more than they trust terrorism and its leaders. That entails the entrenchment of civil rights, the creation of proper elected local councils with wide responsibilities, the open negotiation of solutions between those committed to peace. The Government's recent behaviour takes it in the opposite direction. It has achieved the remarkable feat not just of bringing Sinn Fein into the orbit of political respectability but of making it appear more truthful than anybody else involved. Ministers have made fools of elected politicians - of Albert Reynolds, of John Hume, of James Molyneaux, of themselves. If their secret 'contacts' with Sinn Fein lead to any peace, it is unlikely to last long.Reuse content