The speed and cold of Britain moving on

 

THERE were no deals over the vote on the Scott report. Unworthy thought. As John Major told the Commons, peace in Ireland is too precious for any British prime minister to put it at risk simply to secure his own political survival. He might have added, with equal sincerity, that no British government would be influenced to shift course on Northern Ireland by terrorist violence.

At his press conference with John Bruton yesterday Mr Major explained the real danger that the two governments might have been deflected from the peace process by the bomb at Canary Wharf. There are times when the only appropriate reaction of the outside observer is to sit back and admire the speed and cold efficiency with which the entire apparatus of the British state can move when its interests are threatened. This is not intended to sound cynical nor is it written in a spirit of schadenfreude.

Like you, gentle reader, I hope and pray that yesterday's summit and the fact that the two prime ministers have agreed a firm date for talks will be enough to make a real peace possible.

Whatever the devil in the details, the Sinn Fein leadership has been granted the one demand which it said was essential for it to be able to go back to the IRA.

It will not easily be forgiven by the overwhelming majority of people if it fails to persuade the IRA leadership to give peace and politics another chance. That being said, we must all learn from the experiences of the past weeks. John Major has been clever but he has also been expedient. It would be foolish, in the euphoria following yesterday's summit, to lose sight of that fact.

Maybe there were no deals. But one only had to look at the body language of the main players in the run up to last Monday's debate on the Scott report to know that there had been a dramatic shift in the balance of power between the Northern Ireland parties at Westminster.

Where now was David Trimble's brisk, confident step and the didactic manner he employed to lecture TV interviewers about his own and other people's political proposals? The Ulster Unionist leader seemed almost desperate to escape from the cameras, greeting John Taylor with palpable relief on the steps of Westminster.

It may be that Mr Trimble had been "boxing above his weight" (to quote the former Irish diplomat Michael Lillis's marvellous description of dealing with the British), particularly when he told one London newspaper that Nicholas Lyell, the Attorney General, criticised in the Scott report, was "dead meat". But his very public discomfiture should not tempt us into forgetting that at the end of the day the Ulster Unionist leader's co operation is essential to any settlement.

Mr Trimble's wings have been clipped and that may make him more inclined to listen to his closest colleagues, such as John Taylor and Ken Maginnis. But this is a time when the Irish Government should do its best to build bridges with the Ulster Unionists and to make clear that the acrimony of recent weeks is a thing of the past.

THE transformation in the fortunes of the Rev Ian Paisley, his rehabilitation as a linchpin of the peace process, has been even more startling. Since the IRA ceasefire 18 months ago Northern Ireland Office ministers and officials have been briefing journalists and visiting dignitaries that the DUP leader, like Lazarus, was well past his sell by date. The old boy was creaking at the political joints and had lost the confidence of his own community.

It was hinted the British government would be quite prepared to hold negotiations without him.

remember writing in this space that it was a risky strategy, given the vote he was habitually able to command in European elections. The NIO proposes and then, when it suits, disposes. Now, praise the Lord, Dr Paisley is needed and back in favour, for the time being at least.

How and why have these changes come about? Since the Canary Wharf bomb nearly three weeks ago, the British government has become increasingly concerned about the danger of a renewed IRA campaign and determined to have the ceasefire reinstated.

The first sign of a change in official attitudes came in the surprisingly mild response to that atrocity. We heard almost nothing from the British side about the spirit of the bulldog breed.

Conservative MPs who, in the past, could have been depended on to urge John Major and Michael Howard to take whatever measures might be necessary to crack down on the murdering scum, were strangely silent.

It may be that they genuinely approve of and admire the Prime Minister's efforts for peace. But they are also frightened by the possibility of a new terrorist campaign. These fears were underlined by a series of highly alarming briefings to the media, by senior policemen and other branches of the security services, that the IRA threat was regarded as extremely dangerous.

Journalists were told that it would be difficult to protect London and other cities. Even the royal family was said to be at risk. The Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace was cancelled and television pictures were shown of soldiers in uniform patrolling Queen Elizabeth's residence.

Last Saturday night newspaper editors in London were told another IRA attack was thought to be "imminent".

Why was all this done? In my experience of living in London during previous IRA campaigns, the policy of police forces and of governments has been to try to allay public fears, to offer reassurance that the authorities will be able to hunt down and defeat the terrorists. A quite different strategy was adopted this time.

The most obvious explanation is that the building up of a sense of danger was deliberately designed to give John Major space to make a dramatic political move on Ireland, radically different from his previous approach.

IT WAS already clear that a substantial proportion of the British public wanted the government to take action to save the peace process and was critical that movement had been too slow. Now, as a result of talking up the possibility of increased violence, the government could present John Major not as a prime minister who had changed direction as a result of terrorist bombs, but as a leader ready to take difficult risks for peace and save lives.

As I have indicated, I not only welcome the change, but admire the formidable political skills which allowed John Major to move, apparently effortlessly, from the position he adopted when he rejected the Mitchell report, snubbed the Government and sneered at John Hume in the Commons, to the much more conciliatory tones of yesterday's press conference.

With a fair wind, it may give us all the space to rebuild the peace on firmer foundations. That will require even greater commitment and courage in the weeks ahead. If we fail this time we may not get another chance.