Leading Article: Hume has a bigger job than being president

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Just to see Ken Maginnis and Martin McGuinness engaged in debate on the BBC the other night was a revelation. In conventional terms, their televised meeting advanced no positions, saw no meeting of minds. But the very animation of their encounter once they had shown they could talk to one another was compelling evidence that meetings and conversation have to be the way forward in Northern Ireland.

The immediate prospects for the resumption of peace talks including both Sinn Fein and enough Unionists to make majority representation credible remain dim, but there are good auguries. There is, for example, the moderation and flexibility displayed by the August marchers, and Mr Maginnis's growing belief that there is a Unionist case to be made before uncommitted audiences.

During the past few days, however, the sky has darkened over another quarter of Ulster, although this may seem a strange way to greet the possibility that the leader of the SDLP, the moderate nationalist John Hume, is considering allowing his name to go forward for the presidency of the Irish Republic.

Mr Hume is clearly interested. It is indeed a position for which he might be said to be uniquely qualified. Here is a veteran of the peaceful struggle for the unification of the island of Ireland into a single state. His party has provided legitimacy to umpteen attempts to start and continue dialogue between Protestant and Catholic, nationalists and legitimists, between the British and Irish governments. Mr Hume has operated as go- between, interlocutor, confidential agent, able to converse with Sinn Fein without losing the respect of some, at least, of the Unionists. Would not electing him president of the Irish Republic be a sign and symbol of the essentially peaceful intent of most Irish nationalists, north and south of the United Kingdom's border with Ireland? Would not the election of a member of the United Kingdom's House of Commons (who is also a member of the European Parliament) indicate just how close-bound are the polities of Britain and Ireland? Would not his election accelerate the peace process by placing at the heart of the Irish state a man of the North who is committed, heart and soul, to peaceful rearrangement of Ireland's political geography?

Unfortunately, the answers are no, no and no. Mr Hume's candidature would doubtless play well in the United States of America, where they like their Irish symbolism as brash as the banners in a St Patrick's Day parade. Mr Hume is evidently popular in the Republic, and his candidacy would solve a lot of problems there. His standing would get the leaders of Fianna Fail and to a lesser extent the other parties off the hook - they would not have to campaign or (hard on the heels of a general election) pay for a campaign. Mr Hume would be a neat-seeming replacement for the popular Mary Robinson. In a very different way, he has star qualities, as she does.

But the evident desire of Bertie Ahern and his colleagues in the Irish cabinet to see the post of president filled by someone with a little more glamour than their party colleague Albert Reynolds does not make a convincing case for Mr Hume. The Irish presidency is a part-time job. Mrs Robinson may have cut an attractive figure but a cold-eyed appraisal of her achievement would find it hard to identify much in mainstream political life. She has cheered people up and helped to make the Irish feel good about themselves at a time when the Republic has become an Atlantic tiger economy. She has very definitely kept out of the affairs of Northern Ireland (beyond an innocuous walkabout in Belfast) and out of social affairs of the Republic too, beyond offering Irish womanhood a more compelling role model than either Dana or Sinead O'Connor. And this is in the nature of the job. It is not a movers-and-shakers job: it is a figurehead job.

More than that, though, a John Hume candidacy would be bad for the Republic and bad for the prospect of peace in Northern Ireland. Ireland, it so happens, is going to need quite a lot of symbolic politics during the next few years as it negotiates the shoals of the Euro (Ireland joins, Britain doesn't), the expansion of the European Union eastwards and reform of the Common Agricultural Policy. There is talent aplenty in the Irish business community - isn't there an acceptable candidate to be found there? Mr Hume deserves a great deal at the hands of his fellow country people, north and south, but his job and that of the SDLP is not over. He is too valuable to the peace process to go now. Not only would Sinn Fein benefit from further erosion of the SDLP's constituency strength - an inevitable result of John Hume's departure - but an essential counterweight would go.

This is a tender moment in the great sequence of Belfast talks and talks about talks. To have a senior Ulster political player who says he wants to unify Ireland by assent (and so necessarily gradually) suddenly becoming the Irish head of state, successor to Eamon de Valera, implicitly asserting the old Irish state claim to jurisdiction over Ulster, is provocative. Would the Irish Republic open its presidency to any other member of a foreign parliament or invite an Irish person cleaving to the union with Britain? No. John Hume's candidacy would be regarded by even moderate Unionist opinion as a subterfuge, to obtain by symbols what should only come about, if at all, by the free assent of majorities. For the sake of his neighbours in Ulster and his country - however he defines its borders - Mr Hume should immediately declare himself hors de combat in order to focus, yet again, on the road to consensual peace.