JOHN MAJOR once remarked that too many people underestimated his gambler's instinct. Yesterday's outcome to the Anglo-Irish negotiation suggests he may have been right. There have certainly been times in the past 18 months when that instinct was well concealed. His cautious whip's instincts, his determination not to alienate rebels in the Tory midst, his tendency to leave MPs puzzled about his true views, have all created the impression that he was among the least risky of politicians.
That view now needs to be revised. For the process that led up to yesterday's joint declaration was a real gamble for the Prime Minister. The stakes were certainly high for him personally. Had the negotiations with Dublin broken down, had Mr Major been seen to have made concessions and failed, the results could have been terminal. Tory dissidents would have been quick to create the kind of trouble he faced over Maastricht.
A number of his colleagues - including some of those fulsome in their praise of him yesterday - were suggesting in private not long ago that Mr Major was being naive, that the risks of negotiating with Dublin were too high, that greater men than he had gone down the same route before and failed. There were also plenty of observers who doubted his seriousness; how, when he had struck an accord with the Ulster Unionists, could he risk alienating the support of the very people upon which his slender Parliamentary majority was assumed to rely?
To say the sceptics were proved wrong is not to suggest that he and Mr Reynolds have found a magic solution. The process remains fraught with hazards. But politics is about taking opportunities. The intelligence reports showing that key elements of the IRA wanted a way out; the statesmanlike vision shown by Dick Spring, the Irish Foreign minister, after the Irish elections; the signs from the Hume-Adams peace process that a solution might be worth striving for: these were not circumstances of Mr Major's making. But it would have been easy - and perhaps more comfortable - to ignore them.
Mr Major remains the skilful politician, of course. He has striven behind the scenes to ensure the accord with James Molyneaux's Unionists survives the great strain it is now under. He was deft at yesterday's press conference to seize on Ian Paisley's tactical error in condemning the joint declaration before even reading it. But he also rose to the occasion, quoting Cardinal Daly's declaration two weeks ago that 'now is the time, and now is the chance' for the IRA to end violence for good. And the Commons rose with him. To secure the support of John Smith, John Hume and, however warily, James Molyneaux, is no mean matter.
There has been a lot of loose talk about Ireland being Mr Major's Falklands. There is a fallacy here. If yesterday's joint declaration does prove to be a turning point, it will still be a longer and messier process than Mrs Thatcher's decisive victory over the Argentinians. Moreover, the Falklands factor in the 1983 election has always been exaggerated. She won that election as much because it coincided with an economic recovery.
But that very point suggests there is a parallel. If the economy continues to recover, the Downing Street declaration might well take on some of the symbolism that the Falklands did for Lady Thatcher. For Mr Major to have tried and succeeded would be a glittering prize. But to have tried and failed honourably can at the very worst, do him little harm with the British electorate - and may well do him a great deal of good.
After concluding the Treaty with the Irish negotiators in 1921, Lord Birkenhead famously remarked that he might have signed his political death warrant; it is looking rather as if Mr Major yesterday did exactly the opposite - and decisively removed the signature from his.
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