Let Ulster's leaders grow up

Everything, we are told, has changed; but it turns out that nothing has changed at all. Forty-eight hours after he had been under sedation at a west London hospital, and with the pundits suggesting that he will now take things a little easier, Tony Blair flew to Belfast to immerse himself once more in a quarrel that has strained the nerves of British ministers since Gladstone. This time, we were assured, it was "a historic landmark" (yes, really, really historic); Mr Blair naturally wished to be on hand to bless such a "breakthrough" (yes, really, really a breakthrough). Alas, the rhythms of Ulster politics - whereby a breakthrough presages a new crisis - continue to defy the Prime Minister. No broken Armalites or dismantled bombs were visible; the IRA failed to say "the war is over" (although it had supposedly assured the government of this a decade ago); David Trimble and Gerry Adams were not on speaking terms. Put away those soundbites: they will not be needed until the next historic landmark.

Does it occur to nobody to ask why Mr Blair needed to be in Belfast at all on Tuesday? Or to ask if there might be some connection between his presence and the rapid unravelling of what people thought was an agreement? British ministers treat Ulster as though it were a nursery. The children are told to kiss and make up, only for them to start squabbling again within seconds, blaming each other and running to teacher to tell tales. But Ulster politicians are supposed to be adults. It is the British presence that infantilises them. They do not negotiate with each other but with Mr Blair, always in the hope that he can wrest one more concession from the other side. It allows them to defer to their hard men, claiming that any agreement was not really theirs. All this happens in the full glare of publicity, with Mr Blair working to his own agenda, trying to hog the credit. It was for precisely such reasons that every government since the 1970s has rejected all-night meetings in Downing Street as a way of settling industrial disputes. If Sinn Fein and the Unionists have got as far as they have in recent months, it is largely because the prime ministerial entourage and the TV cameras left them alone.

An IRA return to full-blooded terrorism in the near future is unlikely: Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness enjoy the international celebrity circuit too much to make outlaws of themselves again, while the paramilitaries on both sides are too preoccupied making fat profits from drug-racketeering. Equally, a stable power-sharing regime is unlikely: if they were ever to abandon their grandstanding, Ulster's politicians would slide into obscurity. An unstable peace is probably better than none. But those who expect any sort of a line to be drawn under the conflict - and expect the two sides to start trusting each other - do not know Northern Ireland.

Its 1,700 civilian deaths since the start of the Troubles need to be multiplied by 40 to get a sense of what they would mean in the rest of Britain and to understand why so many people find it hard to stomach the release of murderers from jail. Peace may be assured in the commercial centres and middle-class suburbs, but in the working-class areas, the armed gangs retain their grip. The two communities need 20 peace walls to keep them apart, and low-level ethnic cleansing never ceases. Power-sharing, based on proportional representation, institutionalises the divisions. It forces all parties to rely on their tribal hinterlands rather than to attempt a wider appeal, and it turns extreme groups into serious political forces. This is the outcome of more than 30 years of British rule.

Northern Ireland needs to move towards mature democracy, where its political leaders develop their own solutions and learn to talk about things other than their ancient tribal quarrels. It will not do so as long as Mr Blair, like an anxious parent, rushes across the Irish Sea at the first sign of colic. It probably cannot do so under the Good Friday Agreement, which was essentially an outsiders' invention. The British should guarantee human and civil rights and leave the rest to the people of Ulster, allowing them to rebuild democracy and trust from the bottom up, with as much power as possible devolved to local councils.

Councils will be divided from each other on religious lines, to be sure, but they will co-operate when they need to, particularly if somebody threatens to cut off the subsidies. There will be new threats to peace and new crises. But away from the spotlight, Ulster's leaders may stop striking attitudes and evolve some rough-and-ready working relationships - better still, new leaders may emerge. Only the most centralised state in Europe - which barely trusts local government to run a bus service - would not see this as an obvious solution.

The unanswered questions

No respectable publication should be without unanswered questions in these strange and testing times. Here are ours. Where was the butler when Diana, Princess of Wales was in the car? Why did Tony Blair suffer an irregular heartbeat on the very day that the Daily Mirror was preparing its revelations about Diana's premonition of her own death? Why did he go to Buckingham Palace three days earlier? (Or, if he didn't, why not?) Can it be a coincidence that he hired a former Mirror journalist as his PR man? Why did that same man quit weeks before the butler told all? Why did Mr Blair's illness strike on a Sunday, away from the TV cameras? Why did he return from one hospital to Chequers before going to another? (Or did he? Did anyone see him? Did he go somewhere else?) If you don't want to know the answers to these questions - and we certainly don't have them - you can expect even sillier ones tomorrow.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2003 issue of the New Statesman, Scrap privatisation now