Leading article: Not just a peace process any more, but a daring vision of a new Britain

Share
Related Topics
Ever since the Northern Irish peace process began, there has been a grim, dirge-like rumble in the background, a pessimistic chorus: ``There's no solution ... there's no solution ...'' The doom-mongers have, from the beginning, argued that since one community will not accept a United Ireland and the other will accept nothing less, the whole enterprise was bound to end in tears, blood and fire. Confounded would be the peacemakers. Cursed would be the compromisers. Eventually, come one dark day, the crabwise and arthritic progress of the politicians and diplomats would be seen to be a huge, vain waste of time.

We thought that even if this was so, and the pessimists were proved right, the process itself was worthwhile. As long as the talking went on, the killing didn't. Many decent people are whole and alive this January, because of that talking, who'd be dead, or badly disabled, without it.

But now comes an idea, at least, of what that ``impossible'' settlement might look like. People who are terminally cynical about politics, or who have given up already on the Blair Government, should note that the idea is radical, daring and even visionary. It is a constitutionally audacious suggestion; David McKittrick's language on this morning's front page about the possibility of a new political geography for Britain and Ireland is just right. Of course, this is only a draft idea. We have just had first sight of it, and this is an instant reaction. We know that there are plenty of objections which will leap from the mouths of different parties. Mistrustful scrutiny of the three interlinking parts will surely follow.

Yet this fruit of overnight telephone conversations between the British and Irish prime ministers is an intellectual breakthrough: it is not ridiculous to hope that at some stage the real breakthrough could follow. Compared with the molehills of tittle-tattle that have disfigured the Westminster terrain in recent weeks, this short document is an exhilarating political Matterhorn.

Granted, two aspects of it - the proposed Assembly for Northern Ireland and the North-South body - are gnarled and familiar lumps. Both are necessary, neither are especially attractive and their simultaneous existence raises all sorts of problems of precedence and authority. What is clever in the new proposal is the balancing introduction of a third element, giving reassurance against dominance to both sides. What is radical is that this third element, the intergovernmental council, or the Council of the Islands as it has been called, takes in Edinburgh and Cardiff, alongside London, Belfast and Dublin. We have, at moments, been grumpily suspicious about Tony Blair's commitment to reforming and opening up British democracy. This is the sort of thing that makes one think again.

The cleverness of the third element is that it can take potential conflicts and divert them into a wider arena. As every architect and engineer knows, triangles are strong structures. This one says to worried Unionists: you will not be left on your own to arm-wrestle with republicans and indifferent Whitehall types. The Islands' Council gives you fellowship with the other people of Europe's fractured North-west archipelago: the Scots, Welsh and English, as well as the other Irish. To republicans it could say: the days of London domination are over. Britain itself is devolving and changing, sloughing off the old, centralised and blinkered political culture. A more liberal and relaxed state is developing, in which officially-sanctioned bias against your people comes to seem outlandish and impossible.

It is of course for the politicians to sell those thoughts to the communities and their leaders who are struggling to converse in Belfast. But doing so is not beyond the wit or eloquence of either government. We expect it of them. What we did not expect is the room for growth that this idea gives to devolution in Britain itself: giving Scotland and Wales a place at the table is, whatever way you look at it, a step up for their assemblies. Official nervousness about this radical thought is embedded in the ``heads of agreement'' paper: meetings of the council are suggested at only two a year at summit level. Yet should this body prove itself, one can easily imagine it being used more often. A problem arises? There's a row on the North-South body? The call will go out - summon the council. And whether it meets rarely and ceremonially, or more often and usefully, this council enlarges the competence and meaning of the proposed Scottish and Welsh assemblies; you wouldn't suggest that a local authority should be represented in a British-Irish agreement. It seems as if, to reassure Northern Irish citizens about London, other parts of Britain are being invited to the party: ``You think I'm a bit dodgy by myself? OK, then, I've brought along my sisters.''

In going into the Maze to speak to Loyalist killers, Mo Mowlam took a calculated but brave political risk. She pulled it off, and kept the peace process alive. Now comes a second bold stroke: whoever devised it deserves equal applause. It is a good deed in a naughty world.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Yvette Cooper campaigning in London at the launch of Labour’s women’s manifesto  

I want the Labour Party to lead a revolution in family support

Yvette Cooper
Liz Kendall  

Labour leadership contest: 'Moderniser' is just a vague and overused label

Steve Richards
Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine