Mowlam's truce with Maginnis likely to be short-lived


For some time now the whispered suggestion in press and political circles has been that Mr Ken Maginnis MP, the Ulster Unionist Party's security spokesman, might finally have taken leave of his senses, gone off the rails and generally lost it. The reason: his increasingly abrasive, unquestionably bitter, and seemingly deeply personal, attacks on the Northern Ireland Secretary, Dr Mo Mowlam.

Just yesterday The Irish Times reported the potentially explosive fallout from last week's row between the two when Mr Maginnis called Dr Mowlam "a damned liar". Her furious response was to write to Mr David Trimble demanding an apology without which, she asserted, she would not "do business" with Mr Maginnis in the talks.

Within 24 hours of the letter's arrival, and just hours after its disclosure in this newspaper, Dr Mowlam's threat had been withdrawn. In a statement, Mr Maginnis said she had indicated a desire to bring their differences to an end. He agreed "on the understanding that matters between us, and between the NIO and the Ulster Unionist Party, need to be totally open and frank".

Given the history of the NIO/UUP relationship, we cannot presume the permanence of this latest truce. Moreover, if Dr Mowlam's climbdown betokens again her willingness to do everything necessary for peace, this episode also tells us something about the obstacles still in the way of the process, and begs some questions too about her conduct of it.

When Mr Maginnis (like other unionist politicians) called for Dr Mowlam's resignation after the murder of LVF leader Billy Wright in the Maze prison, the inclination was to regard this as ritualistic and par for the course. However, this was to disregard the underlying realities. And, at a particularly acrimonious private meeting around the same time, Mr Maginnis is understood to have told the Secretary of State he would not rest until he saw her depart her Stormont post.

She was hardly surprised. The personal tensions had been building since last June, when Mr Maginnis questioned the completeness of Dr Mowlam's account to the House of Commons of the state of contact between the British government and Sinn Fein in the aftermath of the IRA murders of two RUC officers in Lurgan.

They have been in the wars ever since on just about every issue falling within Mr Maginnis's security brief: the Secretary of State's mission statement setting the policing objectives for the RUC; her alleged suggestion that bail might be appropriate in the case of Kevin Barry Artt in San Francisco; the Maze breakout; the nature of the intelligence assessment available when she met UDA/UFF prisoners inside the jail; and, only last weekend, reports that the Northern Ireland Office had consulted the South African High Commission about how its government had dealt with the release of "political" prisoners. Mr Maginnis noted that Dr Mowlam had tabled a paper on the prisoners issue to the Stormont talks last Wednesday "with no mention of the South African inquiry".

Wednesday, as it happens, was the day which saw these festering tensions explode before a meeting of the Confidence Building Sub-Group at Stormont. And, as is invariably the case, the final explosion was triggered by a trivial matter, a perceived slight, offence taken at Dr Mowlam's apparent first-name matiness with some talks delegates contrasting with a more formal mode of address in reply to the UUP's "Mr" (Dermot) Nesbitt.

When Mr Maginnis queried this, Dr Mowlam suggested she did not know Mr Nesbitt's first name, an assertion he rejected as a lie, before branding the Secretary of State herself "a damned liar" and marching from the room. (Mr Maginnis claimed all delegates were furnished with a list of those participating.)

Whether or not that was the case, Dr Mowlam penned her angry letter to Mr Trimble the same day, setting the scene for a potential stalemate, and risking taking her already troubled relationship with the UUP to new depths.

Yesterday morning Dr Mowlam's aides were preparing to sit tight and grant Mr Trimble and Mr Maginnis a period of reflection, in the hope that they would "do the decent thing". But by then it was clear Mr Maginnis would not apologise, and that Mr Trimble had neither scope nor inclination to do so on his behalf.

For, while some unionists have clearly been embarrassed by Mr Maginnis's language, it is not as if Dr Mowlam is otherwise beloved of all Ulster Unionists. Mr Trimble himself has had a series of explosive rows with Dr Mowlam, and apparently told Mr Blair two weeks ago that he had no confidence in her as Secretary of State.

AS SHE took time to reflect on the situation yesterday Dr Mowlam may have considered what Mr Maginnis's demeanour might be telling her of the general state and disposition of unionism; how her ultimatum might be viewed by the unionist community at large; and whether it really sat well alongside her commitment to a political settlement for which she unquestionably requires Mr Trimble and his quarrelsome colleague.

It may be easy to mock Mr Maginnis and his claimed security expertise. But more instructive, surely, to reflect that this former UDR officer, who has known colleagues murdered, and has himself survived a number of assassination attempts, may reflect the continuing, and genuine, difficulty of many Ulster Unionists in reconciling themselves to the peace process.

Understanding of that position would seem more crucial given that a majority of the North's pro-Union MPs have already declared themselves against the process, and the expectation in senior UUP circles now that Mr Trimble may well face at least a stalking-horse challenge to his leadership at his party's a.g.m. next month.

Of the threat she could not possibly have thought to make good, Dr Mowlam must have been uncomfortably aware that the wider unionist public (whether or not it considered Mr Maginnis out of order) would have seen an unacceptable contrast between the speed with which she moved against him, and her enthusiasm to keep Sinn Fein aboard together with her reluctance to suspend the UDP from the talks even after the UDA's complicity in a series of sectarian murders was established.

As for the hoped-for settlement itself Dr Mowlam must know that, given the forces already ranged against him, Mr Trimble's chances of selling any deal would be still further reduced should he (and she) fail to keep Fermanagh's most awkward Member on-side.