Leading article:Unionists hold a weak hand

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The Independent Online
What happens if the Ulster Unionist MPs say "no" to political change? That issue overshadows the peace process in Northern Ireland. Days before the Anglo-Irish framework document is published, James Molyneaux and his colleagues seem about to condemn a political process that they have tolerated for more than a year.

It is a disturbing prospect. Unionist politicians have scuppered previous initiatives. This time, Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionists have already declared their opposition to a "sell-out". So far, Mr Molyneaux has kept his counsel, but the mood is changing. As Mr Molyneaux's lieutenants strike uncompromising postures to challenge his leadership, the Ulster Unionist chief may be driven into intransigence. The signals from his party may be a bluff. Hopefully, the Ulster Unionists will still join talks: there has been too much killing for politicians to walk away. Yet we must face the possibility that this ageing caucus of MPs will fail to meet the demands of the moment.

In times of crisis, Unionist politicians traditionally sound a rejectionist chord and stifle calls for compromise. Mr Molyneaux's men have an investment in the status quo: they are the kingpins of Northern Ireland, virtually its sole elected representatives of any importance and fted by Downing Street. They could be personally diminished by a comprehensive settlement establishing an assembly and all-Ireland institutions.

But we should not assume that if they refuse to compromise progress is doomed. There are signs that a gap has developed between them and their constituents. Ulster's Protestants are understandably worried about the framework document: many feel beleaguered and fear that London will abandon their interests to appease republicanism. But peace has chipped away at Protestant paranoia. The warlike noises at Westminster that greeted leaks of the framework document a fortnight ago were not echoed in Ulster itself.

Northern Ireland has changed since the 1970s when loyalist paramilitaries could orchestrate mass strikes to kill off power-sharing. This time those same paramilitaries have forsaken the gun, called for compromise and are more moderate even than Mr Molyneaux. Should Unionist MPs boycott the talks, then their actions are unlikely to be backed up with the same fervour that once characterised Protestant street demonstrations.

John Major has recognised this softening of feeling among Northern Ireland's majority. He has already tried to appeal to them over the heads of their political representatives. When the framework document is published, he will have to reassure them again as politicians whip up a fury.

Nevertheless, the withdrawal of Unionist representatives from talks would disrupt political progress. No new democratic institutions can be set up without their co-operation. An assembly would have to delayed until a new generation of political leaders sprang up to lead those in the Protestant community who are ready to do business with nationalism. This would hinder and delay the peace process, but it is unlikely to derail it. Of course, one weapon in the Unionist locker is to withdraw support from the Government and thereby bring it down. But such action would greatly undermine sympathy in Britain for their cause and might usher in a Labour government, which would be no more favourably disposed.

Even without the involvement of the Unionist leadership, there is much that can achieved. The development of "quangocracies" in both Britain and Northern Ireland has demonstrated that our society can be run reasonably effectively, despite acrimony, by co-opted, non-elected groups. Institutions set up by the Anglo-Irish agreement have flourished despite Unionist disapproval. New all-Ireland bodies could be set up drawing on moderate figures from both communities.

The peace process would go on without the co-operation of Mr Molyneaux or Mr Paisley. There would be a continuing wind-down in security, and further moves such as yesterday's announcement that exclusion orders are to be abandoned. In time, ministers would begin face-to-face talks with Sinn Fein representatives, and Unionist politicians would appreciate how little they were achieving by their inflexibility. It is to be hoped that Unionist MPs will realise their best place is at the conference table. No lasting solution can be engineered without them. But they should knowthat change will not cease in their absence.