The main issue now is one of method and timing. Albert Reynolds wants to advance in two stages, starting with a declaration that would persuade the IRA to end violence. Then, he believes, in the atmosphere that would follow, it would become easier to reassure the Unionists. He is, as he made clear at the weekend, strongly against a fudged document that would not persuade the IRA to lay down its arms. That would be pointless.
John Major appears to be aiming for a single declaration designed to satisfy the IRA and the Unionists simultaneously. This is far more difficult to achieve, because reassurances for one side tend to cancel out those for the other. But Mr Major is afraid that a declaration unacceptable to the Unionists would provoke a wave of violence from their side and cost him their support in the Commons. He is, therefore, consulting the Unionists at every stage.
The underlying question is whether a basis exists for a bridge between the British and Irish positions. The evidence suggests that it does. The IRA has retreated from its insistence on instant unity as the price for ending violence. It now seems willing to accept a declaration that acknowledges the principle of self-determination for Ireland, but leaves the process open to negotiation and subject to agreement by the North. According to what is known of the Hume-Adams talks, it would then pledge to work for union by peaceful means.
This looks like a big change. If the British government has good reason to believe the change is not real, it has no business negotiating at all. If it believes the change is real, or worth testing, its duty is to be bold. This means opening a political path for the IRA, even at the risk of seeming to reward violence. To shrink back from doing so, for fear of the Unionists at Westminster, would be to put party before country. There is a real threat of increased loyalist violence, but to retreat before it would be every bit as cowardly as surrendering to IRA violence.
It is not as if Mr Reynolds were asking Britain to sacrifice the Unionists. He has conceded them the right of veto, and the IRA seems ready to do the same. What Mr Reynolds is arguing is simply that their worries can be more easily dealt with in detailed negotiations when violence has ceased.
His case looks convincing. The two-stage approach would work provided there was not a long pause between the stages, in which Unionist fears could be whipped up. Mr Major would have to take a risk; but there is no risk-free option in Ireland. He will be judged far less harshly if he tries and fails, than if he allows timidity to lose him an historic opportunity.Reuse content