Will Mr Major risk all for a handshake?

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The Independent Online
POLITICAL columns are meant to be trenchant and original; this means they are mostly the wrong place to discuss the desolate politics of Northern Ireland. On this subject, most trenchant statements turn out to be stupid ones; and original thoughts are a pestilence. Yet things are happening that deserve comment. Once, after all, the politics of Palestine and South Africa may have seemed too hopeless and circular for frequent discussion, except in the most generalised and world-weary terms.

The few faint gleams in this dark picture outline rival Irish leaders, talking quietly because they are frightened that if they don't, their day may pass. Sinn Fein is worried that constitutional progress might be made without it being in any way involved, hence the talks between Gerry Adams and the SDLP leader John Hume and the proposals for a ceasefire and round-table talks. The IRA's army council is, for the time being, supportive of the talks, though the terrorist organisation is said to be split.

Second, there is a real fear among some senior Unionists that a complete end to constitutional discussions could signal the effective death of politics in Northern Ireland - a slide downwards into a land ruled by rival warlords.

There are, then, strong reasons for rational politicians to keep trying to make a deal that lessens the violence. But are these rational politicians? Much more so in private than in public. When the Commons discusses Northern Ireland today, the usual banal and repetitive sectarianism will echo around the mostly empty chamber. But before the ritual, and after it, Unionists and nationalists will joke and chat. Off-duty, they can give a convincing impression of mutual tolerance, even respect - the like that dare not speak its name.

This mix of anxiety and private friendliness provides the clue to the latest rounds of talks. Talks? I apologise: in Belfast newspeak, it is a terrible crime to call the conversations now going on between the Under Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Michael Ancram, and most of Northern Ireland's political parties, 'talks'. They are, as the Northern Ireland Secretary, Sir Patrick Mayhew, firmly reminded the Commons yesterday, 'dialogue'. Talking is held to be provocative; engaging in dialogue is apparently OK.

What is the purpose of these private dialogues? The all-important one is of finding a way to get the two sides back into negotiations (talks) about a democratic system of government for the land they live in. Mr Ancram is shuttling about trying to close gaps, to see which subjects might be ignored, which issues might be taken further. As one official put it: 'You could say we're talking about the shape of the table.' This won't go on for ever, probably another few months; but Mr Ancram is winning plaudits on all sides.

The picture seems clear enough: worried Northern Irish politicians, searching cautiously for ways through the minefield, shepherded by neutral Tory ministers.

Here, though, politics rears its ugly head: not Irish politics, but Westminster politics. It is clear that some sort of understanding has been arrived at between the Prime Minister and the official Unionist leader, Jim Molyneaux, whereby the Unionists help to keep John Major in power. After the narrow Maastricht vote in July, Mr Molyneaux told the Independent that 'we do understand each other' and said he hoped the Anglo-Irish agreement would 'wither'.

Mr Major denies there has been a deal ('nothing was asked for and nothing was offered'), yet the Unionists have a new political leverage. That's denied too, but I hear the thunderous wingbeats of a giant porker filling the air. Perhaps this 'understanding' bears the same relation to a 'deal' as 'dialogue' bears to 'talks'.

So the hard and nasty question is this: is it conceivable that a chance for a political deal in Northern Ireland, however slight, will be sacrificed because there is no political pressure on the Ulster Unionists from London - because of a rival deal at Westminster? Is Mr Major an honest broker, or a player? In his own mind, does he at all times rigorously separate the matter of his parliamentary survival from the high politics of Ireland?

The Unionists are particularly keen not to be forced back to a high- risk, round-table negotiation in the glare of publicity, even though they know that their veto on change remains secure. They don't want to deal with Sinn Fein, perhaps ever. As Sir Patrick Mayhew told the Commons yesterday, a ceasefire by the IRA would not be enough - there would have to be an end to violence which lasted long enough to 'establish in sceptical minds that it was for real'. How long might that be? Five years, maybe eight, says the Government. Is it really credible that all Republican terrorists could be persuaded to stop killing for so long, with no guarantee of political advance - ever?

In the real world, a cessation of IRA violence would have to be met more quickly with political moves. At some point, a British government would have to be prepared to put heavy pressure on any recalcitrant Unionist politicians to compromise. It is possible that Mr Major would do this, even at the risk of his position as Prime Minister. The public pressure for a response, even to a ceasefire with no guarantees, would be enormous.

It is likely that all the current talks will crumble to nothing, and the gunmen will get on with doing what they most enjoy. But somewhere, some time, an act of great courage will be required from a British leader. Mr Major is in a slightly ambiguous position. Let us avoid columnar tub-thumping. Let us just say that he owes it to everybody, including himself, to make it clear that if the moment came, he would risk everything for another historic handshake.