Political Commentary: The risk in treating Ireland as a useful diversion

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The Independent Online
EVELYN WAUGH once complained that the Conservatives had not put the clock back a single second. He would not have been deceived by their new slogan 'Back to Basics'. Still less would he have been impressed by Thursday's pantomime. I had always assumed that the ceremony of the State Opening of Parliament must have been invented by one of those exotic, faintly disreputable characters who occasionally dragon-fly through the heavy air of politics - Benjamin Disraeli, David Lloyd George, Norman St John-Stevas.

Whether it was so created or not (a topic I do not propose to go into at this stage), I have at last learnt the purpose of that ridiculous Cap of Maintenance. Generations of Dimblebys had failed to explain it satisfactorily. On Thursday Mr Vivian White, the new Gold Microphone Pursuivant, had a go. The Cap, he told us, represented Compassion, as the Sword of State did Power, and the Crown itself Authority, as expressed in the caption to the New Yorker cartoon of a king on a throne: 'What do you mean, what do I do all day long? I reign, that's what I do.'

But wait. The Cap of Maintenance, Mr White further informed us, kept the Crown literally in place, being worn underneath, as a kind of auxiliary piece of royal headgear. This restored the mystery, for the Crown seemed to be more or less at rest on Her Majesty's head, while the Cap was still being touted around by Lord Wakeham, who hung on to it.

It is with relief that I turn from the ceremony to the politics of the Queen's Speech. They are fairly simple. The object is to keep the Conservative Party out of mischief and Mr John Major in office till this time next year. To further these ends, the legislation is to be kept reasonably straightfoward and, in internal Conservative terms, uncontroversial.

Sunday trading, the only subject on which the Government has been comprehensively defeated since 1979, may still cause trouble. But the Bill (the handiwork of Mr Kenneth Clarke as Home Secretary rather than of his successor) is designed to provide choice for legislators rather than to put the Government's credit at risk.

Not the least interesting aspect of the Bill's passage will be Labour's attitude. True, you do not have to be a committed trade unionist to oppose Sunday opening. You need not even hold particular religious beliefs, traditionally associated with Non- conformity or with the evangelical wing of the Anglican Church. It is possible to believe that it is a good thing all round - good, if you like, for society - for one day of the week to be kept different from the rest.

Nevertheless, Labour has tended to oppose Sunday opening less because of considerations of this kind than because of the requirements of the unions, in particular the shop workers. Behind many of Mr John Smith's loftier attacks on the Government (for instance, over teacher training) there lurk assorted brothers and sisters from the branches, a depleted band maybe, but a force none the less. However, Mr Smith is not going to revive the Opposition over Sunday trading, any more than Mr Major is going to lose the premiership because of it.

Now Ireland is a different matter. A J P Taylor used to say that, whatever adverse criticisms might be made of Lloyd George, he had solved the Irish problem, which had defeated previous prime ministers - Gladstone, Salisbury, Balfour, Asquith. But, as we know, Lloyd George did nothing of the kind: he merely bought a period of relative peace which lasted nearly 50 years, from 1922 to 1969.

There are at least two ways of looking at Mr Major's new-found interest in the island. One is that he sees even a partial settlement of the question as his contribution to history, the mark of his premiership. The other is that Northern Ireland is a useful distraction which does not divide his party as Europe does and will not involve any inconvenient votes on the floor of the House. It is something to pass the time away.

Perhaps, for Mr Major, it is a mixture of both, as political choices usually are. But if he regards his Irish adventure in the latter way - as a useful diversion - he is surely taking a risk. Indeed, he is taking a risk whichever way he looks at it. He has placed, not perhaps his political future, but certainly his political reputation in the hands of four men over whom he can exercise no control at all: Mr Gerry Adams, Mr John Hume, Mr James Molyneaux and Mr Albert Reynolds.

If Mr Major were serious about the supposed 'union' he would, having satisfactorily isolated Dr Ian Paisley and the Democratic Unionists, try either to merge the Conservative Party with Mr Molyneaux's Official Unionists or, at any rate, to restore the pre- 1969 position of close co-operation. I can remember the time when the Unionists were counted automatically as part of the Conservative strength in Parliament. But, as we know, Mr Major and most of his party are not serious about the union - any more than the majority of citizens of the United Kingdom are. Indeed, a recent poll showed that the solution which attracted most adherents was a wholly independent Northern Ireland.

Mr Major is unlikely to go for that. The signs are that he is about to propose some democratisation of local government acceptable to Mr Molyneaux together with something else - precisely what, no one is quite sure - attractive to Mr Adams and Mr Hume. One theory is that the talks will proceed and there will then be yet another Fenian outrage; whereupon Mr Major will say thank you and goodbye to Mr Adams and Mr Hume and promptly give Mr Molyneaux what he had wanted all along.

This may be too much like bargain-basement Machiavelli. But we certainly need some explanation not only of why Mr Molyneaux has gone hand-in-hand with Mr Major but of why he is looking so happy about it. My own explanation is that he has (if a stern Presbyterian will forgive me for putting it in this way) caught a tantalising glimpse of the stocking- tops of power.

Mr Hume, by contrast, is used to it. He has had whole displays of dancing girls put on for his benefit. Mr Teddy Kennedy, the Pope, Mr Barry McGuigan, even Mr Jack Charlton: Mr Hume knows them all, and will gladly tell you of his most recent adventures in the pavilions of power in faraway places.

But Mr Molyneaux has nine votes at his disposal, which can increase a government's majority by 18. He can also decrease it by the same figure. When Mr Major said that no group would have a veto over progress in the talks on Northern Ireland, he meant Dr Paisley's Democratic Unionists. The assumption seems to be that Mr Molyneaux's Official Unionists will not choose to exercise any veto, so pleased are they with Mr Major.

I am not so sure. I wrote earlier that it was his political reputation rather than his future which was at risk. Even so, Europe proved to be Lady Thatcher's graveyard. It may be that Ireland (a small part of Europe) will turn out to be Mr Major's.