Straws in the wind show signs of hope and change

 

ERNEST Bevin, never one to bother about scrambling a metaphor, said when he was Foreign Secretary "If you open that Pandora's box the was talking about the Council of Europe, you never know what Trojan horses will jump out."

Out of the ceasefire has sprung a whole string of constitutional nightmares, many of them shrewdly denied an outing until last year.

Spavined hacks like that old favourite, Joint Authority, which having been well exposed to the, teaser stallions extensive leaks to the press was finally covered in the London and Dublin studs and foaled a pantomime horse with fore, and hind quarters loosely held together in official camouflage paper.

Named Parity of Esteem, it was entered in the Framework Document Stakes in February and, despite the fact that it was groomed to look like that well bred and genuine stayer, Foyle Fisheries, fell predictably at the first fence.

But enough of this horsy Bevinish badinage. I want to assure you, seriously, that during the past year there has been a real change in unionist attitudes towards cross Border bodies.

Where it is clear that such bodies, serve a practical purpose, such as The Foyle Fisheries Commission, where both sides derive benefit through increased efficiency or financial savings, then unionists would not only accept but would wholeheartedly operate such a collaboration across the full range of government activity.

There is one proviso, a vital one. They will not at this juncture accept such a body if it has autonomous executive powers. They see that, with justification, as a united Ireland in embryo. Only when trust and confidence have been firmly established between the two traditions could such a step be contemplated.

As is only too apparent, we have not yet arrived at that happy state. Why then must the executive powers element be inserted in any agreement when it is not necessary to do the job? Let us not put a tooth in it the reason is simply political.

Which brings us to this Principle of Consent to which both governments officially are pledged to ad here and which I believe is genuinely accepted by a majority in this island a belief supported by opinion polls.

And yet, and yet, in Paragraph 16 of the Framework Document which sets out the London Dublin proposals, this Principle of Consent is expressed in language so tortuous and confusing that the Plain Language Commission has awarded it the Golden Rhubarb Trophy for the most baffling document of 1995.

The commission described it as "rambling, repetitive, jargon filled and incomprehensible to its target audience" the target audience being the plain people of Ireland, North and South.

In the statements of the SDLP and Sinn Fein, this Principle of Consent, which is the central vital component of any possible settlement, is smudged and fudged with references to "self determination by the people L0f Ireland as a whole".

AND YET, and yet I'm beginning to sound like Galileo when he couldn't deny that the Earth moved there is movement, change in the most unlikely quarters.

When President Clinton was here in Belfast, I had the opportunity to put the question to Martin McGuinness the first time we'd met at one of the presidential get togethers. "I have a simple question to ask you," I said. "Do you accept the Principle of Consent?" "What do you mean?" he replied.

"You know bloody well what I mean," I said. "Do you accept the right of the majority here in Northern Ireland, as long as they are the majority, to decide their own future? A simple question. You may not wish to answer. You may not be able to answer."

He grinned and moved his gaze away. Then his eyes came back to me. "I could ... go along with that," he said hesitantly. Someone interrupted. The exchange came to an end. I introduced him to another guest. Eppur si muove, as Galileo said, and yet there is movement.

The Clinton visit had a positive it widened the context of e problem. It changed significantly the feeling among unionists that, the American agenda is exclusively nationalist.

By the time he had finished in Belfast and Dublin, there was an unspoken but powerful consensus the men of violence belonged to the past. The vox populi had shaken off its inhibitions peace must be allowed to prevail.

The past year has seen among unionists a radical revisionism. The unionist rethink began with a new wave of academics and intellectuals, a caste which for the past 20 years had kept its distance from unionist politics.

The Battle of the Boyne is now revealed, not as a sectarian struggle, but as a confrontation between the European powers with William of Orange as the standard-bearer for the two great Catholic leaders on the Continent, the Holy Roman Emperor and Pope Alexander VIII, who were bitterly opposed to Louis XIV, financial backer and patron of James II.

We also know that among King Billy's Blue Guards, his personal SS, were many Catholics from the Dutch nobility.

This new open approach is manifest among thinking unionists encouraged by David Trimble, the most intelligent and articulate leader 7th Ulster Unionist Party has had.

The renaissance of a coherent intellectual defence of the Union be public with the Visions for the Union Conference organised by the News Letter in June when 700 people, Catholics among them, assembled in the Ulster Hall.

The platform speakers from very different backgrounds advocated an inclusive and united kingdom, bound together not by restricting ethnic, cultural or religious ties but solely by a common and equal citizenship.

They included Conor Cruise O'Brien, MPs Ken Maginnis, Bob McCartney and Labour's Kate Hoey, John Alderdice of Alliance and Prof Anthony Alcock, an English Catholic who teaches European Studies at the university in Belfast It was a unique occasion which I was pleased to chair.

Intrinsic to this re evaluation of traditional values was the election of Trimble in September and the decision, taken at the UUP conference in October, to break the Orange link with the party.

In November 1970 I suggested such a step and shortly afterwards resigned from the Orange Order since I realised my criticisms of the then theocratic nature of much of Southern politics were incompatible with such a formal association of my, party with a religious body.

OTHER straws in the same wind have been the election of Dr Alastair McDonnell, a fine man, as the first SDLP deputy mayor of Belfast and the fact that the Grand Master of the Order for the Belfast district has twice failed to be elected to the Belfast Council.

This would have been unthinkable in the past and its significance has not yet been fully realised by the Catholic community.

What of changes this past year in the South? In June, as Mayor of North Down, I was given a civic reception and warmly welcomed by Tipperary County Council and by four other town councils there.

More recently in Wexford and in Co Laois, I met the same warm and kindly reception, the same open, genuine desire to get to know those black unionists in the North and to understand their concerns. It is a process that augurs well for the future, and we in North Down are delighted that in January, we shall be welcoming an official delegation from Tipperary Council.

Eppur si muove there is movement, despite the hiccups and hold ups in the peace process.

A less encouraging factor in the peace equation has been noted in the North. Successive Dublin governments have claimed it is the earnest wish of every true nationalist to bring together all the people on this island in peace, by consent. Yet in October John Bruton was attacked in the Dail for spelling out the implications of that entirely legitimate and worthy aim.

To allay unionist fears that the Irish Government is part of a partisan pan nationalist front, aware of the concerns of only one community, he saw his responsibility as "uniting"_unionists and nationalists come together in agreement at the same table.

In a speech at Dublin Castle he said "All party talks at which only nationalists were present would be a reverse carbon copy of the Stormont parliament of the 1920s but without the power.

He went on "The term crisis in the peace process is interpreted by unionists as suggesting that certain things have to be done. In view of the legacy of 25 years of violence, unionists are inclined to look for more than mere words."

This was a reference to a token decommissioning of arms, and Bruton was clearly concerned to rise above partisanship and genuinely to take account of understandable unionist misgivings.

It was surely a positive contribution to the debate on the peace process, and thinking unionists can only feel it is incumbent on them to reciprocate in the same spirit of good will. That hardly makes Bruton a unionist

A similar negative reaction in the Dail in April had greeted President Robinson's entirely factual and unexceptionable statement that unionists felt their position threatened by the Framework Document". If we are to make any progress towards a settlement, such old entrenched attitudes, the product of the party struggles in the Dail, can have no place.

Incidentally, the recent opinion poll in the South, showing a surprising 76 per cent in favour of decommissioning before talks begin, is a vivid indication of the popular determination there to come to an acceptable compromise. The twin track approach now in train will, it is hoped in the North though unionists await the commission findings not without apprehension help to smooth the path to permanent peace.

Again on the positive side was the emphasis by Prince Charles during his historic visit to Dublin in June an emphasis echoed by John Bruton on the historic links between the two islands. It is of interest that Bruton's standing in the popularity polls at 54 per cent has doubled since he took office.

When Gerry Adams addressed a private meeting of his supporters some weeks ago in the republican area of east Tyrone, he is reported as telling them three times "There is no going back". I am therefore, despite the recent murders in Belfast, cautiously optimistic. I believe there is, North and South, a new realism abroad. So, lift up your hearts

For the prospects in 1996, let me turn to Aphra Behn, a 17th century playwright. She forecast in her play The Roundheads "A brave world, sir, full of religion, knavery and change we shall shortly see better days."