No time to despair - where there's talk there's hope

Cutting a deal in northern Ireland

Related Topics
THE omens could hardly look worse. The Gardai find a massive 1,000lb republican bomb in a white BMW waiting to board the Dun Laoghaire ferry for Holyhead. A few hours earlier, a tight-lipped Bertie Ahern, the Irish Taoiseach, has left Downing Street after three-and-a-half hours of talks which conspicuously fail to resolve some of the deep disagreements between the two governments over the future of Northern Ireland. Surely only an insane optimist could now think there is a chance of a resolution? And all this when negotiations for a comprehensive settlement have less than a week to go before their deadline.

Perhaps. The formal negotiating positions of Unionists and nationalists are still far apart on many key issues. But then not everything is quite as it seems. The bomb is almost certainly not the work of the mainstream IRA, but of one of two breakaway organisations determined to sabotage the talks if they can. More important still, the talks between Ahern and Tony Blair may not have been quite as much of a catastrophe as they are feared to be. Yes, they did not close many gaps. But no, it was not a breakdown. Blair and Ahern still have a high regard for each other. Can political agreement therefore be salvaged in the painfully few days remaining?

If all it took were the efforts of Senator George Mitchell, the talks chairman, the answer would certainly be yes. Today and throughout the weekend Mitchell will, in consultation with all the parties, be drafting and redrafting a paper which can form the basis of the last stage of the discussions that begin in Belfast on Monday morning. Ministers stress Mitchell's independence of mind, but he will be in close touch with both governments.

Finally there is every chance that Ahern and Blair will both travel to Belfast later next week to act as a final "court of appeal". Opinions differ about the prospects for settlement but not many people expect a positive outcome, if there is one, to emerge until the deadline is very near. Which was one inevitable difficulty about Wednesday night's talks. They covered voting systems for the Northern Assembly, which all parties now agree will be established as part of any settlement. They talked about the contentious issue of whether the assembly should have a Cabinet-style executive, as the nationalists want but the Unionists don't. And above all they debated the most - though by no means only - difficult question: the scope, powers and basis of the North South bodies envisaged in the outline plan of a settlement.

The difference is over the nationalists' desire to see these bodies, probably under the aegis of a North-South council, given free standing, statutory powers defined by legislation in Dublin and Westminster with their own "dynamic", and the Unionists' insistence that their scope should not be specified until after the assembly is established, and even then should be subject to the overall control of the assembly and Dublin government. Imagine a plan for a cross border motorway from Cork to Portrush. On the nationalist model, a joint transport body would have the statutory power - and therefore the funding - to build the road. The Unionists, by contrast, would see the joint body recommending the road and then seeking funding for the section between Portrush and the border from the Northern Ireland Assembly. Unionists see the first as creeping all-Ireland government. Nationalists see the second as providing the Unionist majority with a veto over any cross-border proposal.

To understand why gaps like these are so difficult to bridge, its necessary to understand the pressures on the participants. Ahern has to deal with some of his own Fianna Fail MPs who are asking how much the Unionists are really giving up in return for the abandonment of Articles II and III of the Irish constitution, which lay claim to sovereignty over Northern Ireland. The nationalist SDLP are looking over their shoulders at the potential electoral threat from Sinn Fein. Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness face further defections to groupings like that which was caught with yesterday's bomb.

And perhaps above all the Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble faces concerted opposition within and outside his own ranks (in the menacing form of Ian Paisley) to any deal. There is anxiety among nationalists that Tony Blair appears to be treating David Trimble with special consideration, for example by inviting him to Chequers for talks last weekend. But that misunderstands the UUP leader's special position. Nationalists have their advocates in the Dublin government. The position of the British government, and that of the tireless Dr Mowlam in particular, is necessarily not an exact parallel. Holding authority over Northern Ireland she has to be even handed between both communities. It's hardly surprising that Blair has been at some pains to articulate the fears of Ulster Unionists to nationalists and to the Irish government, and in doing so ease the dangerous sense of isolation Trimble must sometimes feel.

But all the parties will have to make further concessions if a deal is to be reached. Trimble has made two important concessions - acceptance of some form of cross-border body and the existence of a power-sharing assembly. But in a thoughtful article in yesterday's Irish Times, the Alliance Party leader Lord Alderdice criticised the minimalist view of the assembly held by the UUP, pointing out that "there is no point in having power sharing if there is no power to share". And he urged Trimble to see that Northern Ireland has "more to gain than to lose" from effective cross-border co-operation on tourism, the economy, transport, agriculture, security and so on. So there are hugely painful choices ahead, not least for Trimble, since many of his activists and rivals seem prepared to pay the terrible price of maintaining the status quo.

One of several big dangers next week is the poverty of expectations in Northern Ireland itself about the chances of success. There is a numb sense of fatalism among many people there about the outcome, amply justified by recent history. Blair knows all this very well; but he also still thinks that this time not one of the parties wants to take the blame for failure. If he's right - and he almost certainly is - there is hope yet.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

£6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Etch, a Sketch

Jane Merrick

Something wrong with the Conservative Party’s game plan

John Rentoul
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

How to make your own Easter egg

Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

Cricket World Cup 2015

Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing