The truth about Northern Ireland

The true terms of the Good Friday peace agreement in Northern Ireland were never spelt out, for the very good reason that many of the parties, particularly British Labour ministers, could not admit the terms even to themselves. But they were simple. The IRA, in return for a role in governing the province, would cease its attacks on the British mainland, the British army, the British governing classes (politicians and civil servants) and the business areas of Belfast and Londonderry. It would remain, however, in control of the working-class Catholic enclaves of Northern Ireland's cities, while Protestant paramilitaries continued in control of their equivalent patches. In those areas, paramilitaries would continue to murder and knee-cap as they wished - the IRA carried out 103 punishment beatings in the first year after the Good Friday Agreement - and to make money through drugs and protection rackets.

Whatever ministers believed, it has become increasingly clear that that was the deal the IRA thought it was making. It might, in due course, give up some of its heavy-duty weapons - rocket launchers and the like - because those, after all, were primarily suitable for large-scale city-centre attacks. It is doubtful that it ever envisaged giving up most of its small arms, which are needed to police the proletarian ghettos.

The "peace process" is now in jeopardy because the IRA has broken the terms of the deal. Just before Christmas - for reasons that are still unclear, but probably had something to do with cash-flow - the IRA carried out a £26.5m raid on the Northern Bank in central Belfast. This is denied by the IRA itself, but the Independent Monitoring Commission blames the Provos, as do British and Irish ministers, the police and the security services. The IRA may do what it likes in the Bogside or the Falls Road. It is not supposed to attack big business or commerce. That defeats the whole point of the deal.

This interpretation of events is not one you will commonly read. Officially, the deal was with Sinn Fein, not the IRA, and involved exchanges of pious declarations about the rights of Irish people, north and south, to self-determination. But as ministers now freely admit, there is no significant difference between the two organisations - or if there is, the difference is no greater than that between the Parliamentary Labour Party and the Labour Party as a whole. In effect, ministers have agreed that associates of a "criminal conspiracy" (the description of the Irish justice minister) or an "underworld of Mafia-type dimensions" (the description of Paul Murphy, the UK Northern Ireland Secretary) can hold ministerial office in a corner of the United Kingdom.

The deal has been a good one for IRA/Sinn Fein. It has achieved a degree of respectability and, with the help of state finance, established itself as the leading political voice of nationalists in the north. It is also very much stronger than it was in the south. IRA leaders are past masters at using bomb and ballot in tandem, eschewing the former at periods when levels of violence threaten to erode support, the latter when its usefulness appears to be exhausted. But they have never wavered in their belief that they, and they alone, constitute the legitimate government of the whole island of Ireland. Until that is recognised, they will put at least some arms out of use, but they will never wholly renounce violence. Nor, perhaps, do their working-class Catholic subjects wish them to do so. Memories of how Protestants threatened pogroms in Catholic areas in the late 1960s, when the IRA was at its weakest, are still too fresh.

Has it been a good deal for the British government? Yes, in the sense that the Good Friday Agreement was an instant feather in new Labour's cap and allowed it to get on with governing the rest of the kingdom in relative peace and quiet. Ministers could hope that Sinn Fein leaders - the likes of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness - would be sufficiently seduced by red carpets and limousines to turn into serious democratic politicians. Yet it was never a very realistic hope, given that Mr Adams and Mr McGuinness would be nonentities, lacking any substantial political programme, without the gunmen looming behind them.

Tony Blair's fine rhetoric about "the hand of history" may have been naive, or it may have been just another bit of new Labour cynicism and spin. But it is usually best to recognise reality and speak the truth. The 1998 deal was a truce, not a permanent peace, and it was agreed on not very savoury terms. That is often how governments have to deal with terrorists - and the British and Americans may one day have to deal with Islamists in similar fashion.

Passing the buck - not earning it

Is a parliamentary career now just a stepping stone to a media career and the House of Commons merely a venue for auditions? The latest details of MPs' earnings show that Michael Portillo makes £120,000 a year from TV appearances and William Hague £195,000 from a newspaper column - far more than their parliamentary salaries. Others who have carved out lucrative media careers include Ann Widdecombe, Edwina Currie, Diane Abbott and Clare Short. British politicians no longer have much power to change anything: usually, they do whatever the US president tells them and, if he has no opinion, they ask the editor of the Daily Mail. As Richard Reeves notes on page 8, they daren't even get rid of a hopelessly archaic school-leaving exam. So it is surprising that anybody still wants to be a minister, let alone a back-bench MP. In future, the Commons is likely to be populated by the TV producers' rejects.