Major has starved Adams of the oxygen of romance

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The Independent Online
JOHN MAJOR is not generally thought of as a theatrical figure, but the cause of Irish peace is summoning something new out of him. Yesterday evening's statement in Belfast, like the humiliation of Ian Paisley at Downing Street earlier this month, was an act of political theatre that was shrewdly conceived and performed with aplomb.

The broadcasting ban will go down as one of the most obtuse acts of self-mutilation by a modern democratic government. Its effect had been to swaddle Sinn Fein in an aura of mystery and to protect its leaders, rather than exposing them. In America it gave the republican cause a propaganda weapon of huge value.

Here, the intervention of an actor's voice made Gerry Adams appear faintly intriguing to the television viewer, even sympathetic - as if he was not allowed, poor thing, to answer for himself. Granted, it saved relatives of the dead the unpleasantness of a personal 'apology', but the mere notion that the rest of us somehow had to be protected from the danger of a man's voice (and, no doubt, the sinuous effectiveness of his arguments) was deeply offensive. Its effect on Sinn Fein's publicity was nil, but it gave them the oxygen of romance.

So it ends unlamented: the Prime Minister gave only a lame few words in its defence. What was clever of him was to tie this necessary piece of work so closely to a new demand for a statement on the permanence of the IRA ceasefire. By doing so, Mr Major moved on an agenda which has appeared so often to be in other people's hands. He called in the media, pointed towards the door and said: 'Charge]'

As to his problem with the Sinn Fein verbiage during the past fortnight, we are left with a conundrum that looks unresolvable. He notes, on the one hand, that two weeks have passed without IRA violence, that this is good news, that 'we may have an unparalleled opportunity for progress', that Sinn Fein is 'nearly there'. This is the real world, the situation now almost universally acknowledged.

Major, however, still wants Sinn Fein-IRA to go further. He says they don't need to use his words, but he gives them plenty of versions. 'I just need to know from Sinn Fein that the ceasefire . . . is going to continue come what may . . . I need to know it's for good . . . that nothing will turn them off it. That nothing will change their mind . . . for ever . . . under all circumstances.'

Quite a few words there, and none of them easy ones: who know what threats the future holds? But as both sides understand, this duel of language is really about political authority. It is open for the IRA to say 'for ever' while not meaning it. It is open to the British government to take the existing statements as being adequate. But the staring-down that is going on is a primitive ritual, the outcome of which is intended to show unambiguously who is in charge of the process.

It is unlikely, however, that things will be so clear-cut. Sinn Fein will try a variety of formulae, and Mr Major will try to judge when he has 'won' this contest, eventually accepting words that are indeed unlikely to be his own. In the meantime he has decided to partly sidestep the issue, sanctioning the opening of roads to the Republic and making other gently conciliatory moves.

So there is progress around, below and above the roadblock of linguistic intransigence. Gerry Adams is credited by both admirers and enemies as a dangerously clever politician, but this is shrewd stuff from the Brixton boy too. Yet he cannot hold out for ever: alongside those inside the Government who want him to take a destructively hard line, there are a few who think he is already making a bit of a fool of himself.

The most important aspect of yesterday's announcement was its simplest message, and also the one that will receive the least attention in London and Dublin: the passionate and strongly worded appeal to the Unionist people to give Mr Major their trust.

They will be niggardly about it, as they always are with outsiders, and as they have a perfect right to be after the deceptions that were made public in the run-up to the Downing Street declaration. But it is rare for any electorate to hear from any British politician as clear a promise of their right to self- determination as Mr Major gave yesterday. 'No nods, no winks, no tricks with mirrors', but a cast-iron personal guarantee of a referendum on the results of the inter-party talks he hopes will eventually get going. This, remember, from the man who refused a referendum on Maastricht so firmly and who also rejects the right of the Scottish people to decide that they want a measure of self-government.

After that, it is hard to see any justification for Unionist politicians to hold back, except for those who do not trust their own people and do not credit Mr Major's word. The overall result ought to be that pressure tilts a little bit again on Sinn Fein and that Unionist readiness to engage in the talks is a little further enhanced. Which would be a good day's work by any standards.

Finally, as far as the Conservative Party is concerned, it is reassuring to see that Mr Major is giving not an inch to the small band of visceral Tory Unionists who are planning to raise the flag at the party conference next month. The Prime Minister has been under pressure to return to the old position, fractured by the Downing Street declaration, and position himself clearly on the side of the Union.

He went out of his way yesterday not to, stressing that his approach was 'scrupulously fair to both traditions . . . It does not favour one side or the other.' That will play badly in some Conservative associations but is the unalterable basis for the new politics.

And there is something new here. The past fortnight has been an extraordinary one, and it is important to stand back occasionally to gape. One of the oddest things about it is surely that Mr Major, hugely unpopular, reviled for his lack of imagination, his absence of eloquence, his temporising and his smallness, is rising - pretty magnificently - to the challenge.

(Photograph omitted)