The ceasefire in Northern Ireland may be 16 months old, but just how far has the peace process progressed while the guns have been silent? Labour MP Kevin McNamara looks at what is frustrating the hopes of millions.
BELATED CHRISTMAS presents from unexpected quarters are always the best. The gift of Emma Nicholson crossing the Floor to sit on the Liberal Bench was a joy to Paddy Ashdown and widened the grin on Tony Blair's face. But it was an absolute delight for David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist Leader.
Over the past year the Ulster Unionists have done nothing to advance the peace process in Northern Ireland. They have stood on the sidelines noisily urging on the Government as it ran blindly down the cul de sac of decommissioning IRA arms.
Meanwhile, the Grim Reaper working along the Tory Benches has been making increasingly significant to John Major's fragile majority the nine votes of the Ulster Unionists.
Mr Major's electoral misfortunes play into the hands of a determined minority party leader prepared to exploit the Government's position to gain significant political concessions. The gains are worthwhile in themselves but they also add to the stature of the Leader in the eyes of his followers and the electorate at large.
David Trimble has a vested interest in keeping the Government in power for as long as possible but at a price.
An early general election with an overall Government majority of over 50 seats, whoever wins, would relegate the Ulster Unionists to the Third Division of political parties in the Commons; a party to be listened to and then safely ignored as Margaret Thatcher did when she negotiated the Anglo-Irish Agreement.
Enoch Powell, once the Unionist MP for Down South, milked the minority Labour Government's difficulties for all they were worth, after Jim Callaghan had lost his majority in the Commons. The Unionists' greatest gain was the increase from 12 to 17 seats for Northern Ireland in the Commons. Then when that had been achieved, the Ulster Unionists joined up with the other Opposition Parties to bring down Jim Callaghan's Government.
That lesson has not been forgotten by David Trimble. Indeed, it was strengthened when the threat of a Tory defeat over Maastricht brought the Unionists the advantage of a Department Select Committee on Northern Ireland. Both of the major parties had set their faces against such a Committee until the reality of the Parliamentary arithmetic eventually forced John Major's hand.
Now the stakes are even higher; the Government's position more precarious. As the Unionists flexed their muscles and used their votes to defeat the Government over the European Fisheries vote in December it was not a vote of confidence Trimble demonstrated his Party's potential threat. This is: the ability to bring down the Government if and when his demands are not met.
What then do the Ulster Unionists want?
Ideally they want the abrogation of the AngloIrish Agreement, the tearing up of the Framework Document and the establislunent of a county council style administration for Northern Ireland with the complete integration of the territory into the United Kingdom.
John Major could not concede to all these demands in one go without losing cross-party support in the Commons, causing the mother of all fall-outs with the Irish Government and encouraging hostility from the Clinton Administration.
So what can John Major give David Trimble?
He can promise him an elected Assembly for Northern Ireland, as Trimble has called for. This would be the forum where the Unionists could talk with Sinn Fein.
This has the appearance of a democratic solution to the impasse over the decommissioning of IRA arms. But it is a trap. It would immediately internalise the problem to Northern Ireland, putting the Republic's Government on the sidelines and marginalising, if not wiping out, the smaller unionist political parties associated with the hardline loyalist paramilitary groups. This solution contains no promise of inter-party negotiation and effectively tears up the Framework Document. It would produce an Assembly of Unionist hardliners. Nevertheless, by apparently playing the democratic card, John Major could certainly depend on the support of his own party and possibly of Tony Blair's New Labour. What then does John Major hope to achieve?
The Unionists will keep the Tories in power until such legislation (if necessary) has been passed or arrangements are made for the election of the new Assembly, probably in late Spring or early Summer of 1996. Then there will be the arrangements for the Assembly elections later in the year, possibly October or November and then the Assembly will have to meet.
Such a timetable would keep the Government in power until the next Budget and a possible economic turnaround, giving the Tories an outside chance of turning logic on its head and winning a General Election in 1997.
Mr Major's attitude to his Government is that all is for the best in this the best of all possible Tory worlds and, like Mr Micawber, he hopes something will turn up for the better, if only the economy.
But what of the Nationalists in all of this: the SDLP? Sinn Fein? The Irish Government? Too bad. The parties could threaten to boycott a new Assembly as they have in the past. The Irish Government could huff and puff. So what? Mr Major's Government would survive. The Twin Pack approach to the talks could continue and be ignored by the Unionists as it has been in the past. The Mitchell Commission on Decommissioning could produce a worthy report without the Unionists or the British Govern ment being committed to it.
I hope I am proved wrong. I want to be proved wrong. My scenario may not be accurate in every detail, but I am certain of the broad thrust of my argument. It is pessimistic, but not too far fetched.
It will not be the first, and possibly not the last time, that the interests of Ireland have been sacrificed on the twin altars of Unionist intransigence and British Domestic Politics.