Paisley's good for a laugh, but don't mock the Pope

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The Independent Online
BY THE end of the year, John Major will have been Prime Minister for longer than, in reverse chronological order, James Callaghan, Alec Douglas-Home, Anthony Eden, Neville Chamberlain, A Bonar Law and Henry Campbell- Bannerman. If he survives until October next year, he will have outlasted Edward Heath and A J Balfour as well. No one can say that Mr Major has not had a fair run for our money.

He has rarely looked comfortable. There are occasions when he could and should have been out. He has not hit many runs, but he is still there at the crease, his wicket intact. Mr Major would understand the metaphor. Cricket is all right, but I refrain from drawing any analogies with rugby football. This is evidently not his strong suit, though I have often seen him at internationals up in the stand with the nobs.

Last Wednesday, answering questions on the latest Anglo-Irish peace 'initiative', he assumed that Northern Ireland played Ireland at rugby, saying that he looked forward to witnessing many more encounters between the two countries. But of course Ireland has a united rugby team. It is perhaps the best-liked international side in the world. It has over the years produced some outstanding performers. None the less it does not seem to have done much for Irish unity.

I once asked the great Dr Conor Cruise O'Brien why this should have been so. He replied succinctly that in Ireland rugby was a middle-class game, while soccer was a working-class pursuit. All the trouble was caused by the working classes. That, at any rate, was the good doctor's opinion. I make no claim to his knowledge of Ireland, though I know a little about rugby.

What I am convinced of, however, is that both Mr Major and Mr Albert Reynolds neglect the religious element in the Northern Ireland question, though for different reasons. Both are embarrassed, but the causes of that condition are not the same.

Mr Major is embarrassed by religion generally and by Protestantism particularly, which (except in a few parts of the United States) is regarded as out of keeping with the modern world - as sinister, in its fashion, as communism. For some reason Roman Catholicism is not looked upon in at all the same light. In polite society, you can make fun of Dr Ian Paisley but not of the Pope.

Nevertheless, the indulgent way in which the Roman Church is viewed by bien-pensant opinion does not embolden Mr Reynolds to lay too much stress on Ireland's position as the most theocratic state west of Iran, in comparison to which Spain appears a libertarian haven, Italy a den of licence. In the Britain of late 1993, admittedly, we may look enviously at the Irish state's prohibition of divorce. Some may even approve of its forbidding of abortion. But these are not the aspects of Ireland to which Mr Reynolds wishes to direct our attention. Instead he contents himself with leaving open the amendment of the Irish constitution, which in all respects gives the Roman Church a more powerful position than that of the Anglican Church in England.

The document as a whole talks the language of peoples, communities, traditions, for all the world as if those peoples' religious beliefs had nothing whatever to do with the conflict. If Mr Major thinks that the Paisleys of this world are going to allow themselves to be incorporated into a Roman Catholic state, irrespective of whether the 'greater number' (to use Mr James Molyneaux's pet phrase) of the population of Northern Ireland vote for such a change or not, then he - more probably, one of his successors - is likely to be disabused.

To make such a prediction at this time may seem in bad taste, embarrassing. The English desire for peace in Northern Ireland is made up not only of a laudable wish that people would stop killing one another but also of a wholly understandable ambition to remove themselves from the conflict. Mr John Smith, a Scot, has joined in too in praise of Mr Major, as has Mr Paddy Ashdown, who is himself from Northern Ireland.

It was left to Mr Norman Lamont to cast a sour note on the proceedings, by suggesting that Mr Major had perhaps paid too little regard to the union. Mr Lamont was almost hissed out of the Chamber; while Mr John Hume accused our former Chancellor, who had never shown any previous interest in the unhappy province's affairs, of using it to further his unworthy ambitions inside the Conservative Party.

Well, my mother taught me never to attribute motives - a precept I have tried to follow, in writing as much as in life. It may be that Mr Lamont feels strongly about the union, though his looks are more Celtic than Rangers. He is a Shetlander. These are deep waters.

Where Mr Lamont was unfair was in alleging that Mr Major had been insufficiently tender towards the union. On the contrary: for he spent much of Wednesday afternoon trying to reassure the Official Unionists about the purity of his intentions. He emphasised repeatedly that no change in Northern Ireland would occur without the consent of the majority (or greater number). More significantly - for on this he had successfully opposed Mr Reynolds - he made clear that the Government would not use its influence to secure this consent.

For the first time in his life, Major found himself the most popular boy in the school, treated respectfully by Molyneaux, making new friends in young Ashdown and Smith, even giving the school bully Paisley a much applauded hiding. No doubt this happy state of affairs will persist until the next big bomb goes off. Or perhaps this will not make any difference. For in some quarters the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 is still regarded as a triumph of benign and enlightened statesmanship even though it has done nothing to stop the killing, which rather has increased since its completion.

Its prime purpose was represented to the Conservative backbenchers of the time as the improvement of cross-border security and of police co-operation with Ireland generally. Here the results have been patchy, to say the least. Lady Thatcher was certainly disappointed. She even contemplated withdrawal. According to her memoirs: 'It never seemed worth pulling out of the agreement altogether because this would have created problems not only with the Republic but, more importantly, with broader international opinion as well.'

The difference between her and Mr Major is that from the beginning she held no very high hopes for the agreement. She was uneasy and apologetic about it. It was forced on her by Lord Armstrong (who regarded it as his greatest achievement, equalled only by his alerting her to the perils of Aids). It divided her from her natural supporters. How different is Mr Major's view of the declaration] He sees himself as succeeding where Gladstone and Lloyd George failed, and perhaps in the process equalling them in his tenure of the premiership.