Leading Article: Ulster comes to Washington

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The Independent Online
This week Ulster's politicians gather in Washington. It will be an extraordinary event because just about every brand of opinion will be represented in the same room, from the farthest reaches of republicanism - namely Sinn Fein - to the most extreme forms of loyalism. They are there ostensibly to discuss Northern Ireland's economic future. But once you've talked money, it's a lot easier to talk politics. Let's hope that some day soon such a meeting can be convened closer to home with the task of forging a lasting political settlement.

There are many who have had a hand in making this week's conference possible. But John Major deserves a great deal of the credit for nurturing a delicate process that will, in Washington, see Sir Patrick Mayhew, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, shaking hands for the first time with Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein president.

Yet, just as progress seems so obviously to have been made, it is disturbing to realise how easily it could unravel. For the Government's strategy is undermining its own credibility. Time and again, ministers have demanded concessions from Sinn Fein, only to drop them a few weeks later. They said, for example, the republicans had to declare a permanent cessation of violence but backed down when Sinn Fein failed to say the necessary words. Then they demanded the surrender of weapons before ministerial talks but again performed a U-turn. The result is that the Government unnecessarily makes itself look feeble. It appears to be following Sinn Fein's agenda rather than its own.

John Major should be projecting a firm leadership that can be relied upon by all sides. It would be far better if he set out clear, realistic lines of policy that he adhered to properly.

A strong grip on policy is vital because the peace process is certainly going to get more complicated. As Mr Major's other problems multiply, as his majority diminishes further and as the general election approaches, the Prime Minister's capacity to give Northern Ireland sufficient priority will be severely stretched.

An additional problem is the fact that, even if his government lasts a full term, there is not enough time for this administration to settle all the outstanding issues. That would be less serious if we could trust Labour, should it prove triumphant, to give Northern Ireland sufficient priority. But there is little to suggest that Ulster is high on Tony Blair's agenda. In an interview published today with Marjorie Mowlam, it is clear that Labour's Northern Ireland spokeswoman takes her brief seriously.

She has made the party's policy more even-handed towards the Unionists. But Mr Blair has not been vocal on Northern Ireland.

It is pertinent to recall that over the past three decades Tory premiers have distinguished themselves over Northern Ireland far more than their Labour counterparts. Edward Heath imposed direct rule on Northern Ireland in 1972 and Margaret Thatcher signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985. In contrast, Labour prime ministers have been a disappointment. Neither Harold Wilson nor James Callaghan showed vision: under their watch the province drifted into civil war.

In short, we should celebrate events in Washington this week: but we should worry a little about Mr Major and even more about Mr Blair.

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