Political Commentary: Sir Patrick walks the tightrope

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'I WILL not give you any idol, or idea, creed or king,' Belfast-born Protestant Louis MacNeice wrote 13 years after the partition of Ireland, 'I give you . . . the laughter of the Galway sea . . . the toy Liffey . . . the vivid chequer of the Antrim hills.'

There is, perhaps, an unconscious trace of MacNeice's 'Train to Dublin' in the speech Sir Patrick Mayhew made to the University of Ulster last Wednesday. Just as MacNeice's poem linked physical landmarks of Ireland, North and South, so Sir Patrick repeatedly used the phrase 'the island of Ireland': precisely that used by Unionists to confront the inescapable physical wholeness of Ireland without prejudice to the political past or future.

But Sir Patrick went further: in his lengthiest speech since becoming Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, he went out of his way to pay tribute to the nationalist tradition in Ireland, naming with admiration Daniel O'Connell, Parnell, Wolfe Tone. He even quoted approvingly the IRA hero of the 1920s, Ernie O'Malley, for recognising 'the cultural riches' of the country he fought against.

On the face of it, it is surprising that in the middle of an IRA bombing campaign Sir Patrick should make a speech which, while reasserting the wish of the Northern Ireland majority to remain in the United Kingdom, described the nationalist aspiration as 'no less legitimate'. The reaction was predictable.

The Daily Telegraph reported on its front page that Sir Patrick had made 'major concessions' to the IRA; Ian Paisley reportedly told Sir Patrick's staff that it was a 'wicked' speech by a 'wicked' Secretary of State. Even the non- sectarian Alliance Party was critical. In public the party's leader, John Alderdice, described the speech as 'superficial and disappointing'; in private to the Northern Ireland Office Dr Alderdice said, by all accounts, that he regarded the speech as a betrayal.

There was, however, a ritual element in the attacks; it is important to see what Sir Patrick was not doing. Three years ago Sir Patrick's predecessor, Peter Brooke, used an interview to say that the IRA could not be defeated by military means alone. But because he failed to say explicitly that any talks in which republicans were represented could only proceed after the IRA had renounced violence, he provoked a furore which for a few hours looked likely to cost him his job. Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland now operate on a twin track: the search for a solution through the constitutional political parties on the one hand; the pursuit of a security policy designed to contain the paramilitaries on the other. But, periodically, they also feel the need to send a message to Sinn Fein in response to its frequent calls for direct talks with the British government. Sir Patrick was therefore careful not to make the same mistake as Mr Brooke did in 1989. Instead he underlined 'that there can be absolutely no question of our dealing, directly or indirectly, with anyone who still espouses violence'.

On the question which lurks permanently in the penumbra of British government policy towards Northern Ireland - whether to treat with the IRA - Sir Patrick was therefore unequivocal. Certainly the speech was crafted to encourage those in the republican movement who, from time to time, in Sir Patrick's words, 'voice their wish for a peaceful solution'. But he did no more than reinforce the status quo; the British government will not talk to the republicans until the IRA has laid down its arms; the IRA leadership shows no signs of readiness to do that until the British serve notice that they will withdraw from Northern Ireland. Nothing in Sir Patrick's speech, or in Sinn Fein's dismissive response, changes that.

Indeed, Sir Patrick partly directed his message, made on the very day of two IRA bombs in London's West End and on the eve of an anticipated IRA Christmas ceasefire, at those who tolerate or support the terrorists, tacitly or otherwise. He hoped that they would reflect on what the collapse of the IRA could mean: the end of emergency legislation; the return of the British Army to their garrisons as before 1969; normal policing; and the social and economic improvements that would follow from all that. So, far from being a 'concession', this was more an elegant statement of the obvious.

Similarly, nothing Sir Patrick said, for example about the willingness of the British government to see a united Ireland brought about by democratic consent, goes beyond British policy as expressed in the Anglo-Irish agreement. Yet, as a former attorney- general, he weighs his words with care. He does not make a 24-page speech for the sake of it.

There are two points worth underlining. The first is that Sir Patrick reaffirmed his commitment to resuming talks on a constitutional settlement. There remain formidable obstacles, not least the post-election instability in Dublin. Sir Patrick almost certainly hopes that a coalition led by Fianna Fail will prevail, since in opposition Fianna Fail would be tempted to resist a constitutional settlement made by its enemies, particularly one involving the removal of Articles II and III of the Irish constitution. These lay explicit claim to sovereignty over the North. It is also unlikely that devolution talks could resume in earnest before the May local elections in Northern Ireland. But Sir Patrick has served notice that he has not given up.

The other important strand in Sir Patrick's speech was more philosophical. He pointed out, perhaps more clearly than any previous British minister has dared, that a continued presence in Northern Ireland offers no economic advantages to Great Britain. This is not simply the pounds 2bn a year public expenditure in the province; he also reminded his audience that the EC single market means that any theoretical advantage of access to Irish markets ceases to exist. The sub-text of his message to the nationalists is that imperialist motives are no longer reason enough for Northern Ireland to remain imprisoned in the British state: it is there because of the dire consquences if the British withdrew without a lasting settlement. This is the background to his warning that ' 'Brits Out' means the ethnic cleansing of a million human beings'.

Sir Patrick's post is a lonely one. For too long the Westminster wisdom has been that Northern Ireland was not a job worth having. The image of Reginald Maudling as home secretary, gratefully accepting a whisky before his aircraft was off the tarmac at Aldegrove and exclaiming 'What a bloody awful country' is burnt into the folk memory.

Nor does the Anglo-Irish question play any significant part in the intellectual life of Great Britain. Many, perhaps even a majority, of newspaper editors regard Northern Ireland as a 'switch- off'. These days bien pensant, politically active north Londoners are more likely to discuss Scottish devolution than what remains the United Kingdom's most intractable constitutional problem.

But against this uncongenial background Sir Patrick made it clear last week that he has not given up. There is no quick fix, no terrible beauty to be reborn; only the plodding, frustrating search for a politically acceptable settlement. He used his speech to signal to the minority community in Northern Ireland that the search was in good faith. Given the awesomeness of the task it is, at least, a mercy that Sir Patrick is probably the only Secretary of State for Northern Ireland ever who actively sought the job.