Political Commentary: Still lost in the old Irish mist

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The Independent Online
IN A SPEECH in Cork last Wednesday, Dick Spring, the Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs, and leader of the Labour Party, quoted a famous passage of Winston Churchill: 'Then came the Great War. Every institution, almost in the world, was strained. Great empires have been overturned. The whole map of Europe has been changed. The position of countries has been violently altered. The modes of thought of men, the whole outlook on affairs, have encountered violent and tremendous changes in the world. But as the deluge subsides and the waters fall short we see the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone emerging once again. The integrity of their quarrel is one of the few institutions that has been unaltered in the cataclysm which has swept the world.'

Nearly four years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the passage has an eerily modern ring to it. But the point of Mr Spring's quotation was to challenge the plaintive fatalism of the Churchill paragraph. He argued that solution of the Northern Ireland conflict was an imperative and that 'rather than (the British and Irish) governments saying we cannot reach the goal of full agreement because of the obstacles, I would prefer them to say 'we must reach this goal'.'

Mr Spring went on to say that if the all-party talks which preceded the Irish election, were not resumed because of Unionist opposition the British and Irish governments should seek either to 'develop' the Anglo-Irish agreement or - the most significant part of his speech - to arrange for the two governments to negotiate directly on common proposals which would then be put to the parties in Northern Ireland.

The priority that Mr Spring attaches to the Northern Ireland issue is not in doubt. Asked last week how this plays in his own political base of Tralee in County Kerry, Mr Spring said: 'Oh, they say 'concentrate on things you can do something about, like unemployment or draining the Shannon'.' But Mr Spring added that he could not agree, because the Northern Ireland issue was 'draining the country mentally, physically, economically, spiritually, any way you like'.

British politicians seldom, if ever, use the same language. And this despite the costs of more than pounds 3bn a year, the demands on Britain's overstretched Army, and the unprecedented security cordon thrown around the City of London this weekend. Sir Patrick Mayhew, the Northern Ireland Secretary, has pointed out more than once that there is no imperialist gain to Britain in her presence in Northern Ireland. If British politicians talked like Mr Spring we would all see last week's exchanges in the Commons on Northern Ireland for what they were - the most important political event of the week, rather than a mere side issue to the continuing brouhaha over Michael Mates and Asil Nadir.

The little drama that unfolded in Westminster last week amounted to an end to bi-partisanship on Northern Ireland. It started with the leaking of a pre-election Labour document, submitted to Neil Kinnock with the approval of Kevin McNamara, Labour spokesman on Northern Ireland, proposing joint sovereignty for at least 20 years. This reflected new thinking on a topic which is practically taboo in British political debate - perhaps particularly on the left where the most visible strands of opinion have ranged from, at one pole, adventurist calls for the troops to come out (with goodness knows what consequences) to silence and paralysis. And that was welcome. Nor, as Mr McNamara pointed out in the Commons, is there anything inherently not respectable in the notion of joint sovereignty, which was mentioned as an option in a discussion document from Lord Whitelaw in 1972. The problem was that Labour's argument was framed in a way that allowed Sir Patrick Mayhew to condemn it for envisaging a settlement being imposed on the Unionist majority - a prospect apparently ruled out in Mr Spring's Cork speech.

And Sir Patrick made the most of his opportunity, as did John Major a few moments later. Indeed, faced with the double opportunity to embarrass the Labour Party and attract vital support, given the Government's fragile majority, from the Unionists, they attacked the document in some of the toughest Unionist language either has used. 'The Union is vital to all parts of the United Kingdom,' the Prime Minister emphatically told the Commons. So tough, in fact, that John Hume, the leader of the SDLP, engaged in a heated argument immediately afterwards with Michael Ancram, the junior Northern Ireland minister.

The ideal game plan of Mr Spring and the bright team of officials and advisers around him seems to be this: all- party talks remain unlikely before the autumn. If they do not happen by then they will seek, perhaps at a summit between John Major and Albert Reynolds, joint talks on proposals which would leave blanks, for example on the internal governance of the province, to 'be filled in' by the Northern Ireland parties. Any final agreement would be put to two referenda, North and South. They worry about the British Government's fragility, but they would much prefer John Major, who understands the issues, to stay than be replaced by a new Tory leader who does not.

All that sounds fine in theory. The progress of Mr Spring and his party, along with Mary Robinson's election as President, remains the most optimistic development for many years, spelling the beginning of the end of the civil war politics which has dominated Ireland since the 1920s. But the realities in Westminster, graphically on show last week, are that in the current political climate Unionist leverage on the Conservative Party, with its narrow majority, is increasing rather than diminishing. It is, moreover, the 'Westminster wing' of the Unionist parties which is most wary of fresh talks. For all Mr Spring's optimism, Churchill's 'dreary steeples' still dominate the landscape.