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

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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.

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