This constant change of ministerial attitude may seem bemusing to all but the most devoted of Ulster watchers. Yet the reality is simple: only the public is being kept in the dark. Ministers are now ready to begin direct talks with Sinn Fein before a single gun is surrendered. History says that this will happen. Government sources made crystal clear over a fortnight ago that it would happen. The first meeting yesterday between representatives of the loyalist paramilitaries and Michael Ancram, a Northern Ireland minister, made similar discussions with Sinn Fein a virtual certainty. The loyalists were required to supply only a letter promising discussion on "decommissioning of arms", an ill-defined phrase capable of flexible interpretation. Sinn Fein should have little difficulty matching this vague commitment.
Given this prospect, the Government's kicking and screaming last week over Gerry Adams's fund-raising trip to the United States looks faintly ridiculous. After all, it is perfectly legal for Sinn Fein to raise funds both here and in the US.
Sir Patrick Mayhew, whose patrician manner makes him about as ill-suited as George III to the task of winning American politicians over to British demands, petitioned Washington to stop the trip. Bill Clinton - knowing full well that Sir Patrick will probably be hobnobbing with Mr Adams in a few months - refused the request. The president, with his eye on re- election, understandably paid more attention to Irish-American voters than protests from across the pond. The result was an avoidable British humiliation, which unnecessarily compromised the Anglo-American relationship.
Of course, John Major has to juggle political considerations which do not dog Mr Clinton. He must maintain Unionist confidence while not alienating nationalists. But the Unionists know that ministerial talks with Sinn Fein will eventually take place. In fact, some people probably imagine that such talks have already occurred. Regular discussions are under way with senior civil servants at the Northern Ireland office. The average person may think that distinguishing between these officials and ministers is splitting hairs.
Meanwhile, Mr Adams awaits themoment when he will be invited to grasp a ministerial hand. The calendar suggests that this event will occur soon. In May, Sir Patrick and Mr Adams will find themselves in Washington at the same investment conference on Northern Ireland organised by President Clinton. Sir Patrick will wish to avoid the embarrassment of Mr Adams offering an as yet unwelcome handshake.
In this light, little is being achieved by prevarication. Delay of what seems inevitable is likely only to feed mistrust of the Government among all parties. The outbreak of peace in Northern Ireland has owed a great deal to the Prime Minister's determination, honesty and trustworthiness. Now is not the time for him to jettison these qualities.Reuse content