Magazine article The Spectator

Can the Faithful Tribe Trust Mr Blair's Tightrope-Walking Skills?

Magazine article The Spectator

Can the Faithful Tribe Trust Mr Blair's Tightrope-Walking Skills?

Article excerpt

It is a heart-in-mouth performance. Last year, our principal artiste rode his bicycle along a two-inch-wide tightrope, 50 feet above a ravine, with no safety net. This year, it is a half-inch tightrope, 100 feet high, still no safety net, and he is riding with no hands. So will Mr Blair make it? John Major's father occasionally performed daring stunts in the circus. Only Tony Blair would dare to bring such circus tricks to Ulster politics.

As was argued in this column last week, there was no need for all this melodrama. It is a nonsense that the government should find itself having to resolve the question of decommissioning, under a deadline, in the same week that Drumcree is coming to the boil. As of 11 a.m. on Wednesday, 30 June, it seems unlikely either that there will be a deal today or that the whole process will collapse at midnight tonight. But one or other of those predictions may well have been falsified before this magazine reaches the news-stands, though if the peace process does turn into a pumpkin on the stroke of 12, the ugly sisters will be left in charge. Surely no government could be that irresponsible? If Mr Blair wants a deal, he may have to wait.

The Sistine Chapel metaphor has been used before about Ulster, referring to Michelangelo's fresco of God and Man, their fingers almost touching, but leaving a crucial gap which cannot be bridged. Last year, at least for a moment, the Ulster gap did close, but a year's neglect has opened it up again. It has also become clear that, in several crucial respects, last year's agreement depended on fudges. Fudge is not a secure foundation.

It was hard for David Trimble to sell the Good Friday Agreement to his party; to do so, he had to exert all his authority. Nor was he opposed solely by bigots. Decent men like Jeffrey Donaldson and Willie Ross found it desperately difficult to reconcile that Good Friday with their consciences. Post Good Friday the hope was that Mr Trimble would gradually reinforce his authority, partly through the successful operation of the new executive and the powers of patronage that a First Minister would command. The Unionists would then recognise that, despite the Assembly's imperfections, they were the majority, which gave them more political power than they had had since the abolition of Stormont.

But this has not yet happened. Instead, Mr Blair would like Mr Trimble to go back to the Unionists and tell them that the terms which they thought they had accepted last Easter have now been renegotiated, in Sinn Fein's favour. Almost every Unionist believes it to have been agreed at Good Friday that Sinn Fein could not join the executive until decommissioning had started. `No guns, no government' has become the Unionists' favourite soundbite. Mr Blair would like them now to accept a new deadline for decommissioning: 1 May 2000. But that would require a massive effort of trust on the Unionists' part, when their reserves of trust are almost exhausted.

There is a further problem here, arising directly from the chaotic rush in which last year's agreement had to be drafted. There would be a possible compromise on decommissioning: to allow Sinn Fein into the executive, as long as it accepted a rigid timetable for the hand-over of weaponry. Compliance with this would be monitored not by the British and Irish governments, who might succumb to the temptation to have another dollop of fudge, but by General John de Chastelain, the Canadian peace negotiator who is trusted by most Unionists. …

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