Both governments recognise that they must allow each other to play their different parts in the peace process. Neither wishes at this stage to challenge a strong partnership that has been the bedrock of all progress to date.
Over the past week, that inter- governmental relationship has followed a sensible course through uncharted territory. Mr Reynolds, with his republican credentials, has sought to reassure nationalists that peace offers more fruitful prospects than war. Mr Major's task has been to dispel Protestant fears that perfidious Albion has struck a secret deal with terrorists. His meeting yesterday with Ian Paisley offered an obvious counterpoint to Mr Reynolds's historic handshake with the Sinn Fein leader.
The two governments' respective roles were sketched out in last December's Downing Street declaration. This envisaged that, soon after a cessation of violence, Dublin's Forum for Peace would provide a platform for Sinn Fein to take part in talks. Realists have recognised that only nationalist parties north and south of the border could be expected to participate at this stage. For its part, Britain made clear its requirement that Sinn Fein should undergo a quarantine period.
Having pursued this agreed approach, both leaders can already report some success. Only a week after the ceasefire announcement, Sinn Fein and the IRA seem to be edging towards turning the promise of a 'complete cessation' into a more obviously permanent commitment to peace. There are signs that Mr Major is gaining confidence within the Protestant community. James Molyneaux's Ulster Unionist Party has been restrained in its response, and the phrase 'civil war' has not crossed Mr Paisley's lips for some days. Fears of an all-out anti-Catholic terror campaign have receded and a loyalist ceasefire is now regarded as a serious possibility.
The success of the past week's diplomacy should not, however, disguise the inevitability of a more bracing climate, once peace is less fragile. Both governments must be prepared to challenge those who seek reassurance. Mr Major will have to make concessions to nationalism that will provoke fierce opposition among Unionists. For his part, Mr Reynolds may not remain the darling of republicanism once he starts work removing the Irish Republic's territorial claim to Northern Ireland. The two governments might even fall out at times.
In these circumstances, an outbreak of verbal conflict should be judged not as a mark of failure but success. The peace process aims to move Ulster's affairs from war into the arena of peaceful politics, its proper place in a civilised society.Reuse content