There was no way that John Major and the Irish premier, John Bruton, could reasonably explain to the US President why, after 15 months of peace, all-party talks had not yet begun. And Britain, ever anxious to emphasise its sovereignty over Northern Ireland, was not prepared to let Mr Clinton gain the credit for making a breakthrough. Hence the 11th-hour deal and handshake on Tuesday night just before the US leader set off on his trip.
But the agreement is more than just a cobbled-together political fudge. The stalemate in the peace process has at last been broken. Preparatory discussions can now look at developing a framework for all-party substantive negotiations, scheduled to begin at the end of February. In the meantime, an international commission will tackle the decommissioning issue.
Most important, the relationship between London and Dublin - the rock upon which a political settlement will be built - has been secured. For several months, a worrying rift had been growing. The British government has been adamant that some arms must be given up before all-party talks could commence. Dublin is equally convinced that the IRA cannot meet such a precondition without splitting the Republican movement.
The joint communique recognises these differences but ensures that they do not halt political progress, at least for now. Though neither the Unionists nor Sinn Fein jumped for joy at what was agreed, the initiative serves as a safety valve for what was becoming an explosive situation.
Those who predicted that the IRA was on the brink of restarting its military campaign were probably exaggerating. Even extreme Republicans have little stomach for a return to a conflict that achieved little over 25 years. But a poisonous atmosphere had developed, as demonstrated by the bitterness of the summer marching season. In such an environment, disturbances can easily spill over in generalised communal violence. There was an urgent need for a release of tension.
The long-term problems have not gone away, though. Divisions between Dublin and London remain. It is difficult to see how the British government or the IRA could alter their stance on decommissioning without losing credibility. So, at this stage, it looks like the process will falter again early next year if the IRA refuses to hand over arms before constitutional talks.
The solution to this problem is not clear. Both sides must give a little. But the involvement of George Mitchell as chairman of the international commission bodes well. He is the former majority leader in the US Senate, well used to brokering deals with the apparently irreconcilable. He is also Clinton's man: the President will want to see the peace process healthy when he goes to the polls in search of Irish-American votes next November.
In short, the political leaders have bought themselves a little more time, the second peaceful Christmas in succession. They will have do a great deal more than this if hopes for Northern Ireland are to be matched by reality.Reuse content