Only Ulster's own parties can break out of the maze

The negotiators' final task
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The Independent Online
IN NORMAL times, or what passes for them in Northern Ireland, the depiction on BBC Radio by a prison officer of the frighteningly aberrant regime at the Maze might have created more of a sensation than it did. Even so, the problems of imposing order on a system which has claimed the lives of 29 prison officers in 25 years would be as daunting for this government as it was for the last. But these are not normal times; the prisoners of the Maze, both loyalist and republican, will be at once actors and subjects in the peace talks which resume in Belfast on Monday. Actors because they contain some of those who will need, on both sides of the divide, to be satisfied if Sinn Fein and the two paramilitary-linked loyalist parties are to acquiesce in a settlement. Subjects because their release, at least after any settlement, is bound to be an issue in the talks. In such circumstances any attempt suddenly to turn the Maze into a normal prison would, even supposing it were possible, threaten the peace process itself. The big picture, in short, does not allow such a course.

This is a deeply shocking fact. But no more shocking than some of the other calculated, rule-bending risks the Blair government has already taken in the quest for peace. The refusal to be hung up on demands for prior decommisioning of IRA arms, Blair's willingness to meet Gerry Adams when circumstances require it, the return of Adams himself to the talks on Monday after the briefest of exclusions in response to two IRA murders, perhaps the non-extradition of Roisin McAliskey, certainly Mo Mowlam's own meeting with paramilitaries at the Maze itself, are all examples of what John Major didn't - and given his perilously slender Commons majority - probably couldn't, allow in his own dogged search for peace. Blair's temperament and parliamentary supremacy have been applied to kick away every removable and unnecessary obstacle to a settlement. And of course the end justifies the means. For the end, if it is reached, it something very big indeed.

The rule-bending is anyway finite; there is a deadline. The talks will start with a new intensity on Monday because they are intended to finish by Easter - just three weeks away - with a date for a referendum pencilled in for 22 May. If ever there was a time for mainland Britons to shake themselves out of the numb mood of denial that characterises their view of Northern Ireland, it's now.

Government participants in the talks have already seen some interesting things: a role play in which Seamus Mallon, the SDLP's deputy leader, and Jeffrey Donaldson, the new young Ulster Unionist MP, were asked to swap positions and imagine aloud what the advantages of a lasting settlement would be for the other. Mallon's enumeration of the benefits of knowing the status of Northern Ireland could not change without the consent of its majority, of belonging to the biggest party in a new assembly, and of remaining in the United Kingdom, is said to have been a tour de force. Reg Impey, the Ulster Unionist co-ordinator, eloquently challenged Sinn Fein, during the London phase of the talks to admit it had never really tried to understand the hopes and fears of a million Unionists. There have been sharp exchanges on the nationalist side in which Mallon has invited Martin McGuinness to inhabit the real world and distinguish between what is achievable and what isn't. And while the UUP has so far steadfastly resisted Tony Blair's and - this week in Washington, Bill Clinton's - urgings to talk directly to Sinn Fein and not simply through the chair, there was even a moment when its deputy leader John Taylor was caught laughing at a McGuiness joke.

But while all this is engagement of a sort, it does not make a settlement. The outlines of that are well known: a Belfast assembly, cross-border bodies, a new form of British-Irish relationship and the abandonment of Dublin's constitutional claim to a 32-county republic. But so are the difficulties. Even supposing you can reach agreement on a strong assembly with a cabinet-style executive, how can a coalition that includes ministers from both Sinn Fein and Ian Paisley's DUP operate in practice? Should the executive require a majority way above 51 per cent for any decision to ensure power is genuinely shared? And even this pales behind the critical question of the cross-border bodies and whether they should be subservient to the assembly as the Unionists insists they should, or able to take binding decisions of their own as the nationalists want. These aren't intriguing little problems for a political science seminar: they have the real capacity to derail a settlement and plunge Northern Ireland back into darkness. And all this when David Trimble, the UUP leader, is hemmed in by rivals, inside and outside his party, who abhor the idea of any deal; and when Sinn Fein is already seeing defections to anti-settlement republicanism.

Blair nevertheless has assets. These include not only Mo Mowlam, the anti-politician's politician, who has proved to be the right woman at the right time, but also Paul Murphy, her own choice as political minister, and a shrewd, solid, Welshman, as patient as he is decent. They include, too, the real steel shown so far by David Trimble in withstanding the huge pressures on him to abort the talks. They include the support of Bertie Ahern, the Irish Taoiseach, whose nationalism is of a distinctly modernised form. And they include his own - as he himself has wryly suggested - "insane" - optimism that this business can be finished. There is every chance that as the deadline approaches Blair will enter the talks directly.

And Blair has one other asset: the grim consequences of failure. Most of the involved British ministers and officials - one of whom dares to put the chances of success at around 55-45 per cent - are convinced that Adams and McGuiness genuinely want a settlement. But even if they didn't, it could hardly be more obvious that Blair has taken every possible step to keep them in the process. Similarly on the Unionist side, Trimble's rivals and tormentors need to remember that Blair owes them nothing in the Commons, and the prospect of a return not only to war but to the hated Anglo-Irish agreement could be the bleak alternative. Blair has rightly thrown away the rule book in his impatient search for peace. And if the waters close over the parties this time, it's unlikely to be the Government which takes the blame.