11 APRIL 1998, Page 10


The devil is in Mr Blair's lack of detail


On Wednesday morning, Stormont Castle was full of red-eyed officials who had spent much of the night trying to resuscitate the Northern Ireland peace process. They have probably failed, but there was nothing inevitable about that failure. During the next few days, there will be a lot of wiseacreage about squaring circles and dreary steeples, on the easy, cynical assumption that this is the inevitable next phase of Ulster's tragic history. Not so; there was an opportunity. That it was squandered is due to human error, not to malignant destiny.

Everyone involved in the talks must take some blame, with one exception. It would be unreasonable to blame Gerry Adams for the skilful way in which he undermined the settlement; he had never wanted it. But if the other participants had displayed the same tactical ingenuity, Adams's attempts at sabotage could have been frustrated.

A month ago the Irish Prime Minister, Bertie Ahern, indicated that a settlement could go ahead without Sinn Fein. The Shinners panicked at the prospect of Dublin and Washington endorsing a deal which excluded them, and started to send signals. They seem to have persuaded Dublin that they could accept peace, in exchange for a few trifling concessions. Meanwhile Mr Ahern was in trouble with some of his backbenchers; he had not per- suaded them of the need to drop Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish constitution, which include the irredentist claim to the North. So he decided to press for an Adams- friendly draft, with a dual purpose: to pla- cate his MPs and to secure Sinn Fein's par- ticipation. This ensured that the text was unacceptable to the Unionists, thus achiev- ing Sinn Fein's purposes: to prevent a set- tlement while trying to put the Unionists on the wrong side of world opinion.

But the British draftsmen should never have accepted Mr Ahern's text, even in a watered-down version. Something has gone dreadfully wrong with the negotiating pro- cess over the past few weeks and Senator Mitchell is not to blame; he was the prison- er of the material supplied to him by both governments. In a country which invariably takes a magnifying glass to the small print, it was an exceptionally bad idea to produce a 65-page document. But it was simply crazy to table it three days before the end of a two-year negotiation. A much better document produced four days earlier might just have had a chance of success, but by the end of Tuesday, the mood had changed.

A lot of Unionists had been unhappy about any cross-border institutions, even under the control of a Northern Ireland assembly. They would have acquiesced in an agreement which David Trimble had accept- ed, but less than wholeheartedly; they were not looking forward to a bruising contest with Ian Paisley. So some of them are almost relieved that everything has broken down; Mr Trimble would have a much hard- er time selling any document to his support- ers now than he would have had a week ago.

The British officials who oversaw the final text were desperate to finish the draft- ing before the deadline, so they lost contact with Unionist political realities. They are responsible for a document which will assist Sinn Fein and the rejectionist Unionists while weakening every moderate politician. It was a most culpable error.

But the Unionists also made mistakes. They should have spurred on the drafting process, pressing for solutions which they could have accepted. They should never have got into a situation in which one syn- optic text was sprung on them. They also placed too much faith in Tony Blair.

David Trimble had little confidence in John Major and he was always reluctant to accept Paddy Mayhew's and Michael Ancram's Unionist credentials. He got on especially badly with Sir Patrick; the irony is that they are now reconciled, far too late to do any good. But Mr Trimble felt at ease with Mr Blair. He concluded — rightly — that Mr Blair regards support for Irish nationalism as just another extinct Old Labour volcano. Mr Trimble was also amused by Mr Blair's lack of interest in the detail of Ulster negotiations, but he drew the wrong conclusion from this. He inter- preted the PM's detachment as further evi- dence of his distaste for Irish nationalism, but that is wrong. Mr Blair's lack of interest in Ulster detail is typical of his approach to all the problems of government; the broad- er the brush the better, as long as Alastair makes sure that the headlines are good.

But this cannot work in Ireland; peat bogs do not take spin. If a politician is to involve himself in Ulster affairs, he has to master the theology. Neither Mr Blair nor Dr Mowlam have done this, hence the text.

Mr Blair is now in the Province, and it will be interesting to see how he reacts. In his early months as Leader of the Opposi- tion, he used to say that the Ulster problem was insoluble. If he decided that this was still the case, he could always console him- self with the Peter Utley dictum: that a mainland politician cannot lose by involv- ing himself in Ulster affairs. If he fails, it will be blamed on the intractability of the natives, while even the most transient of successes will be acclaimed as a miracle. But that is unlikely to satisfy our PM, now. He has not yet encountered failure, and he tells us that he feels the hand of history on his shoulder; that does not sound like a man ready to give up. So what will he do?

One obvious course is to prolong the peace process. The original deadline was 1 May; there could be a reversion to that date. This would leave the question as to how to use the extra time. Mr Blair has an authoritarian streak, which could bode ill for the Unionists. He may not be a senti- mental nationalist, but there is no evidence that he is a sentimental Unionist either. He has told Mr Trimble what he wants to hear; he tells most people what they want to hear. There will be those in the Northern Ireland Office who will now argue that though he need not do it in French — and if he did, it would be better French — he could warn Mr Trimble as Churchill warned de Gaulle: `Si vous m'obstructerez, je vous obliterai.' But there will be others, including John Lloyd, to remind him of the Ulster Work- ers' Strike of 1974; he would not want to embroil his government in that sort of mess.

He could also try to persuade Mr Ahern to soften his line, pointing out that renewed violence in Ulster would spill over into the Republic. But Mr Ahern, too, has a con- stituency; it would be as hard for him to retreat from the document as it would be for Mr Trimble to accept it. Mr Ahern is also in awe of John Hume, who does not believe that nationalists should negotiate with Unionists. They should simply go over their heads and persuade London and Dublin to impose humiliating terms on them, as with the Anglo-Irish Agreement.

Mr Blair has asserted his optimism, but he is in an impasse. The moment of hope has gone, and a lot of decent people in Ulster are desperately depressed, as we all should be on their behalf. They know that the next few months will be most unpleas- ant. It is crueller to have hoped and lost then never to have hoped at all.