Magazine article The Spectator

The Ulster Peace Process Is Morally Flawed, and So It Ought to Be

Magazine article The Spectator

The Ulster Peace Process Is Morally Flawed, and So It Ought to Be

Article excerpt

The Ulster peace process is morally flawed and always has been. From the outset, it has come under withering fire from High Tories such as Robert Cranborne, Charles Moore and the Daily Telegraph's leader writers. Everything that these critics said was as true as it was trenchant. But it was also irrelevant. The Tory critics of the peace process have found it easy to occupy the moral high ground, and impossible to plan for the amoral low ground on which most political conflicts are won or lost. The strongest argument in favour of the peace process is the lack of a realistic alternative.

The Telegraph school, who deny this, advocate a twin strategy: integration and a vigorous campaign to defeat and imprison the IRA. Both sound so tempting; they ought to be the instinctive response of every Tory. Alas, neither would work.

If the British people were as committed to maintaining the Union with Ulster as they were to recapturing the Falklands, there would be no problem. The prime minister of the day would announce that Britain would bear any burden and pay any price, and the argument would be over. But that is not the case. If Mrs Thatcher or Mr Major had come out for integration, Labour and the Liberals would both have denounced it, as would Dublin, Washington, Brussels, plus the whole of international bien-pensantry and its British domestic allies. The Tory party itself would not have been solidly behind such a demarche, which would have been seen, not as a settled expression of national will, but as a partisan gamble that would not survive the administration which had embarked on it.

The attempt to defeat the IRA would have run into similar problems. There would have been no co-operation from Dublin, so the terrorists would have had safe havens in the South, made all the more comfortable and dangerous by the millions of dollars they would have raised in the USA. Would the British public have had the stomach for a long campaign in defence of a cause for which they feel little sympathy?

John Major thought all this through. He also rejected another option: inactivity. Early on in his premiership, he decided that he was compelled to intervene. If there had been regular bombings and shootings in his constituency of Huntingdon, he would say, this would be the principal issue in British politics, and so it should be when those homicides were taking place in Belfast. He therefore embarked on the peace process; he told me early on that the odds for success were four to one against. But it had to be tried.

From the beginning, the peace process depended on creative ambiguity, with politicians speaking out of all four corners of their mouths in order to deliver different messages to different communities at the same time. The Unionists had to be reassured that the Union was safe, while the Nationalists and Sinn Fein were not to be discouraged from believing that the Brits were fed up and wanted out. This was a tricky exercise; it is not easy to spin one message for the Shankill Road and a different one for the Falls Road. But John Major had the required persistence, subtlety and deviousness. He also had two long-term objectives, which dwarfed and justified the machinations. The first was the maintenance of the Union on the basis of majority consent. The second, the incorporation of Sinn Fein into democratic politics, and its obligations.

Mr Major began the process, but could not conclude it. As so often in Ulster, personalities exercised a baleful influence. While it would be absurd to deny that there are underlying sources of conflict in the Province, the influence of individuals over the events of the past three decades has often been crucial, and usually malign. …

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