Friday, 30 September 1994


New Statesman & Society, 30 September 1994

In a Brighton courthouse, the government is being put on trial for its Criminal Justice Bill. It has the right to remain silent – but not for much longer. Steve Platt and Paul Anderson report

"Order!" demands the judge. "Disorder!" shouts a man with a mohican haircut in the public gallery. And the jury cracks up laughing – followed by the judge, who is wearing a bright blue mask and a fake leopardskin rug for a robe.

Then the counsel for the defence joins in too, along with the witness in the witness box (who looks a little the worse – or should that be better? – the wear for drugs). Everyone in the public gallery cheers and whoops. A large black dog barks wildly and runs around the courtroom floor wagging its tail. "Everyone should get mellow and party," says the man in the witness box, and the cheering and whooping in the public gallery start again.

Not Alice in Wonderland, but a courtroom in Brighton, opposite the Royal Pavilion. The setting is authentic enough, but the old courthouse hasn't dealt with the usual round of drunk and disorderlies, prostitutes and petty crooks for five years.since a new courthouse was built up the hill. The "trial" taking place opposite the Pavilion has no legal status – indeed, under the provisions of the Criminal Justice Bill, which, barring a political earthquake, should complete its passage through parliament next month, it could itself be an illegal act. For the courtroom has been squatted, and the trial participants are trespassing.

Which, of course, is precisely the point. Brighton's old courthouse was squatted a fortnight ago in protest against the Criminal Justice Bill by Justice?, a local campaign collective, which, in less than 72 hours, transformed it into a social centre with a vegetarian cafe, meeting and exhibition spaces and regular film, music and poetry events. More than 600 people passed through its doors in the first few days afterits occupation. The "trial", with the government in the dock, is being staged by the squatters, with the help of a handful of outside witnesses (Liberal Democrat MP Simon Hughes, down in Brighton for the Lib Dem conference, is one) as an alternative to a boring public meeting. As with the other events organised by the old courthouse's new occupants, it works. Some 200 young people turn up to pack the public gallery – and they love it.

One of those present is Clara, 16 years old and, with all of three months experience now behind her, a hardened campaigner against the bill. She comes from a council estate in Nottingham, where 600 turned out for a protest march last Saturday. Her grandfather used to be "something to do with the Labour Party", but she "hadn't had a thing to do with politics" until someone told her that the outdoor party she'd enjoyed so much earlier this summer would be illegal under a new law going through parliament, and the people organising it would be liable to arrest and imprisonment, and their vehicles and equipment seized by the police.

Now she can recite chapter and verse on the bill's provisions. "Did you know that if 20 of you get together to have a protest against what they're doing, the police can ban it – and stop anyone coming within five miles? You could be having one in the town where you live arid they could stop you going home. That's like China or Haiti orsomewhere."

Her friend, Millie, pierced lips,Lycra leggings and a lurid pink T-shirt, is slightly less well-informed but no less articulate. "If you're homeless, they can arrest you. If you're arrested, they can fit you up. If they fit you up, they've got new prisons waiting to take you in. And all because they don't like your way of life. What's so good about theirs that they take all this trouble to stop us living ours ?"

She offers a leaflet, all swirling patterns and packed text. "If you don't stand for something, you'll fall for anything," it announces. It's a "Free Information Network" publication, listing more than 200 events for September alone, music mixed with anti-motorway protests, a "Glastonbury Tor Gathering" with a "Walk for Wildlife", a demonstration against the occupation of Tibet in London, a "Buskers Against the Bill" parade in Guildford. A list is printed of Lords to be lobbied: "Write now to the Lord of your choice!" it reads. "(But don't ALL write to the ones with silly names.)" The address given is "The House of the Living Dead", London SW1A 0PW. "It's got the postcode, so they'll get the letters," says Millie.

Another leaflet comes from a similar stable: "There is a need to dance. There is a need to travel. There is a need to squat. There isaneedfor protest. There is a need for open spaces. There is a need to celebrate. There is a need for community. There is a need to communicate. There is a need for tolerance. THERE IS A NEED to be heard."

Sixty thousand people made their voices heard against the bill earlier this year, when they turned out for a demonstration in London (see NSS, 29 July). On 9 October, perhaps twice as many again will express their opposition – including ten double-decker-buses-full mobilised by Justice? in Brighton. (We know it will be that big because the police have said so, refusing the organisers permission to rally in Trafalgar Square because "it won't hold 100,000 people or more".)

As with the last march, the organisation is proceeding along two rather different models. The first is a loose, often anarchic alliance of groups and individu¬als, many of them linked through the Freedom Network, which coordinated "DIY Week", a series of events around the country last weekwhose aim was, according to the Network, "to alert communities to the dangers of the Criminal Justice Bill. It is also designed to show the government that we are not dole-scrounging drop-outs but the voice of a new generation, which has more vision than all of the Tory cabinet put together. We feel we have been totally abandoned by this gov¬ernment and the only way we are going to get our voice heard is through peaceful direct action and encouraging people to become part of 'DIY Culture' – ie, 'There's no point in complaining about things. If you want change, you've got to get offyour arse and Do It Yourself.'"And people do – from a beach party in Scarborough to a banner drop in Archway.

The other organisational model is provided by the more traditional left, with the Socialist Workers Party – and, more recently, the whole gamut of other, smaller, left groupuscules – to the fore. It makes for interesting juxtapositions – the crustie traveller and the besuited trade unionist, the hardened raver and the committed anti-racist.

"Jimmy Knapp might be willing to speak at the demonstration," says a Labour left diehard at one of the organising meetings. "Who's he?" asks a man who's come to see how many sound systems they'll let him bring into Hyde Park. While one group of people talk about trying to get trade union backing for the Coalition Against the Criminal Justice Bill, another is planning to "squat" Hyde Park for the weekend of the march.

SWP national organiser, and Coalition steering group member, Weyman Bennett has mixed feelings about the organisational abilities of some of the newer activists involved in campaigning against the bill. For every successful event organised by the likes of Justice?, there is another that flounders in anarchic inexperience. "Sometimes they don't put the work in. They don't realise that protests don't just happen, even if people are angry about something. They've got to be organised."

Bennett and other opponents of the bill have spent a lot of time trying to get across that it's not just about ravers and travellers. They've tried to emphasise the abolition of the right to silence, the new police powers of stop and search, whereby if they believe a "violent incident" may take place in an area, they can search any person or vehicle without giving a reason, and the anti-terrorist provisions, whereby the possession of information or materials that may be of use to terrorists could result in prosecution.

Clara again: "Did you know that you could have a fishing line, scales, a clock and some harmless chemicals and you could be charged with 'going equipped for terrorism' and get ten years, and that it's up to you to prove that you weren't going to use them to make a bomb?"

Clara needs no lessons now about the far-reaching nature of Michael Howard's ragbag of prejudices. "They've united us all against them, haven't they?" she says. The government has been put on trial over the Criminal Justice Bill – and it's not only the young people of Brighton who are finding them guilty.

Friday, 16 September 1994


New Statesman & Society leader, 16 September 1994

Not for the first time, Bosnia faces a critical month – and, not for the first time, the story we are being told about it by the majority of the British media bears scant relationship to the truth

According to the received wisdom – and at times it's almost as if it were dictated by the Foreign Office directly to the leader-writers and television commentators – the danger now is that the fragile peace among the "warring factions" will collapse as a result of the intransigence of the Bosnian Serbs, who, unlike the Bosnian Muslims and Croats, have refused to accept the peace plan put together by the "contact group" of big powers, whereby Bosnia would be split in half between the Serbs, on the one hand, and the Muslims and Croats, on the other. To make matters worse, the United States is promising to lift the arms embargo on the (mainly Muslim) Bosnian government next month if the Bosnian Serbs do not accept the plan.

The upshot, according to the received wisdom, is that the two key priorities are, first of all, to persuade Radovan Karadzic and his Bosnian Serbs to change their minds; and, secondly, to persuade the US not to do anything so rash as lifting the arms embargo. In line with this, the British and French are using a mixture of carrot and stick on the Bosnian Serbs, leaning on Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic to lean on Karadzic, and promising a tightening of sanctions on the Bosnian Serbs if they don't comply. Meanwhile, the British and French have threatened to with-draw their troops from the country if Bill Clinton lifts the arms embargo.

There has been barely a squeak of protest against this British and French strategy – yet the best that can be hoped is that it fails completely. It is utterly misconceived, not just in principle but in just about every detail. At root, of course, as NSS has argued consistently, the problem is that the British and French have always seen the Bosnian war as essentially a civil war, rather than what it is:

a war of aggression by the Bosnian Serbs, backed by Serbia, against an internationally recognised multi-ethnic democratic state. It is because of this misunderstanding that the British and French have been so tied to the idea that the solution to the crisis in Bosnia is some sort of "equitable" ethnic partition.

It should have become clear by now that this whole approach is not only repugnant, but is also doomed to failure because of its total misapprehension of the nature and aims of both Serbia and the Bosnian Serbs. Put simply, the Milosevic regime is a brutal expansionist dictatorship that will do anything to realise the dream of a Greater Serbia; and Karadzic, whatever appearances to the contrary, is Milosevic's puppet. Neither Milosevic nor Karadzic will settle for an "equitable" division of Bosnia: they want, if not the lot, then everything they have grabbed already and more besides. And they will play every diplomatic game to achieve their goal.

Right now, that means Milosevic posing as sweet reason, backing the latest partition plan, and Karadzic doing the hard-liner act. The purpose is to seduce the allies into removing the economic embargo on Serbia, which is currently the major obstacle to the achievement of Serbia's war aims and a source of growing popular discontent – and so far the strategem has worked perfectly.

Of course, the price for Milosevic is having to disown Karadzic – but mere words are cheap. Anyone who believes that there is now an unbridgeable gap between Milosevic and Karadzic, or that Milosevic will really participate in a blockade of the Bosnian Serbs, is living in a fantasy land. And in any case, if the worst comes to the worst, there's always the option of Karadzic being "persuaded" by Milosevic to back the partition plan.

After all, it does legitimise the Serbs' land-grab in Bosnia, even if it doesn't give them everything they want. And it wouldn't necessarily be forever: once the gaze of the international communitv was averted, it would be relatively easy to start the invasion anew. In the meantime, the Serbian dictator could bask in the glow of international acclaim as a man of peace. His position thus strengthened, Milosevic could turn confiden-tly to his next project, the "ethnic cleansing" of Kosovo and Macedonia.

The alternative to the bolstering of Milosevic through appeasement is simple: inflicting on his vile regime and its Bosnian Serb satellite a decisive military defeat. The Bosnian army is potentially in a position to do just that if it can acquire the arms – but it isn't quite ready yet. According to military experts, it needs another two or three months before launching a winter offensive against the Serbs' relatively immobile heavy tanks and artillery. In the meantime, Bosnia remains reliant on UN protection.

Which is why the British and French threat to withdraw their troops if the US lifts the arms embargo is doubly vicious. Lifting the arms embargo might not be completely necessary for the Bosnians to acquire the arms they need: since the peace deal between the Bosnian government and the Bosnian Croats, there has been a substantial flow of arms to Bosnia through Croatia. But lifting the embargo would undoubtedly be a major boost to the Bosnians' fighting strength – and, given the Bosnian Serbs' intransigence, there can be no excuse for refusing to do it.

For Britain and France to oppose the lifting of the embargo would be bad enough; to back up the opposition with the threat of withdrawal is little short of criminal. As Britain and France know, UN withdrawal from Bosnia would be tantamount to an invitation for the Serbs to take Sarajevo and the other beseiged Bosnian cities. It is true that lifting of the arms embargo would necessitate a different, more active and explicitly pro-government, role for foreign troops in Bosnia: but Britain and France should be spending the next few weeks working out what that role should be, not preparing to pull out.

Friday, 9 September 1994


New Statesman & Society leader, 9 September 1994

It would be easy to dismiss this week's TUC Congress in Blackpool as a complete non-event. There were no giant bust-ups, no gauntlets thrown down before the Labour leadership, no significant changes in TUC policy. The speeches were bland, the debates cursory, the fudges entirely successful.

But, in many ways, the absence of a story is the story. Just a couple of months ago, Black¬pool 1994 was being trailed as the first battle in the trade unions' autumn offensive to get Labour to embrace specific targets for full employment and for a minimum wage – so the fact that the big unions decided not to fire a single shot to spoil Tony Blair's honeymoon as Labour leader is extremely significant. The motions on full employment and the minimum wage were carefully composited to produce a lot of vague and unembarrassing flannel, and Blair had nothing to worry about when he arrived for supper with the TUC general council on Tuesday.

Although some in the big unions were hinting this week that they would be doing their utmost to commit Labour to specific targets when they come back to Blackpool in four weeks' time for the Labour Party conference, it seems that Blair's overwhelming popularity in the opinion polls has at least temporarily silenced his union critics.

The absence of any argument with Blair is not the only interesting non-story of this Congress. Quite a few commentators were looking forward to rows over the signal workers' dispute and over the "relaunch" of the TUC by its new general secretary, John Monks. In the event, neither happened. Monks defused potential left criticism of the TUC's inadequate support for the signal workers, by declaring that he personally supported them unequivocally, and by inviting RMT leader Jimmy Knapp on to the platform at an eve-of-congress rally. Acouple of Trotskyists hoisted a banner demanding that the TUC got off .its knees, but no one took any notice.

Monks' support for the signal workers also went a long way to silence the critics of the way he's pointing the TUC. What has grabbed the headlines in the year since Monks took over from Norman Willis has been his moderation: the arguments for partnership with industry, the openness to discussion with political parties other than Labour (even – horror of horrors – the Tories), the emphasis that unions are good for productivity.

Unsurprisingly, none of this has gone down too well with some on the left – and, to make matters worse, there's a definite touch of dangerous media-friendliness in the Monks regime. He has radically restructured and re-oriented the labyrinthine bureaucracy of Congress House, pruning its useless committees, and using the savings to establish a campaigns department to ensure that all the TUC's research work is pushed out to MPs, the media and pressure groups, instead of merely being "noted" at general council meetings. To traditionalists, it all seems a little too close to Mandelsonism for comfort.

The moderation and media-friendliness were on display in abundance this week – but so too was Monks' radicalism. It wasn't just a matter of the signal workers. Unlike his predecessor and most of the current generation of Labour politicians, Monks does not squirm with embarrassment at the thought of industrial action: he is perfectly at ease with the notion that, sometimes, strikes are essential for unions to do their job. He is equally at ease with the idea that, as the economy recovers, a rise in wage militancy can be expected. Once he'd made all that clear, there was little for the left to get its teeth into.

But if Monks is a breath of fresh air at the TUC, it's difficult to be entirely optimistic about the state of British trade unionism after this week's conference. The overwhelming gloom that hung over TUC gatherings in the last years of Willis has lifted, butjthe unions are still facing major problems. Membership is still falling, finances are still dodgy, the

government is still unremittingly hostile. Despite a widespread commitment to organising the increasingly large part of the workforce that is in casual, part-time or temporary work, the reality is that few unions have made significant headway in such recruitment. More and more employers are going for individual contracts with workers; unions are recognised in fewer and fewer workplaces.

Plenty of people in Blackpool were prepared to acknowledge all this – but few had many ideas for reversing the long-term slide in the unions' fortunes, apart from working for a Labour government, and continuing to improve the unions' services to their members and their overall image.

Of course, the unions' position would be improved by a Labour government, which would grant them the same rights enjoyed by their continental European counterparts. And, as many unions have already found, members and would-be members do find such services as cheap insurance and pensions schemes very attractive. But Labour in power and improved services are nothing like enough to cope with the changed conditions of the labour market. The growth in the importance of part-time, temporary and casual work demands nothing less than a transformation of Britain's trade union culture – a move away from the male domination (still) of most trade unions, a move away from the all-too-prevalent assumption that a workplace cannot be unionised if management won't co-operate and, most crucial of all, a move away from reliance on passive recruitment to active organising.

However much they have improved their services and their image, British unions, for the most part, still urgently need to improve their ability to get new members to join. This won't happen overnight – and it won't happen unless British unions adopt the American practice of employing full-time local union organisers to go into unorganised workplaces and recruit. It's time to get back to basics.

Friday, 2 September 1994


New Statesman & Society, 2 September 1994

A year after the BNP's Millwall by-election win, it is standing in nearby Shadwell. But this time the Labour Party is confident of victory, writes Paul Anderson

"This isn't going to be another Millwall," says Shadwell Labour councillor and Tower Hamlets council deputy leader Pola Manzila Uddin. "We're going to keep control of Shadwell on 15 September. If people round here were going to vote BNP this time, they'd have voted Liberal in May."

Her confidence is shared by other Labour activists in Shadwell, the ward in the east London borough of Tower Hamlets where the death of veteran Labour councillor Albert Lilley has necessitated a by-election. The fascist British National Party is standing a candidate, Gordon Callow, in the hope of emulating its success a year ago in nearby Millwall, the Isle of Dogs ward where Derek Beackon won its first-ever council seat, after a rancourous campaign in which both Labour and the Liberal Democrats shamelessly pandered to white working-class racism. But this time Labour does not feel vulnerable.

"It would be stupid to be over-confident," says Labour candidate Michael Keith, a 34-year-old urban geography lecturer at Goldsmith's College who lives in the area. "But the campaign's not going too badly, and if things continue as they have done we should be alright on 15 September." Labour ward organiser David Kershaw is more emphatic. "It's going absolutely superbly," he says. 'The canvassing has been more thorough than in the local elections in May. We had 25 people out last Thursday – unheard of in a council by-election. We reckon we can increase our majority."

It is not difficult to see the reasons for the optimism. Most obviously, Labour is starting from a far stronger position than it did in Millwall last year. Whereas in Millwall the party ran a shambolic campaign, even though it had barely scraped a victory against the Liberals in a by-election there a year before (in which the BNP took 20 per cent of the vote), in Shadwell it has a highly professional machine in place even though it appears to be a safe Labour ward and even though the BNP has no electoral base.

In May's council elections Labour swept away the Liberal Democrat administration that had ruled Tower Hamlets since 1986. Shadwell returned three Labour councillors for its three seats – just as it had in 1990. The late Albert Lilley topped the poll with 1,870 votes, with Uddin second on 1,652 and their colleague Abdur Shukur third on 1,635. The three Liberal Democrat contenders took 889, 776 and 730 votes, with the best-placed Tory on just 367 votes, behind a Bengali "Inde¬pendent Labour" candidate who had fallen out with Labour. The BNP didn't stand.

Given that Labour is riding high in the national opinion polls and that the new Tower Hamlets Labour council has not yet had enough time to make itself unpopular, it might at first sight seem odd for Labour to expend much effort in the run-up to the Shad-well vote. Yet the party is leaving nothing to chance.

The London regional Labour Party has made Shadwell its number one priority, and, for the past fortnight, teams of Labour canvassers have been tramping round the ward every weekend and most weekday nights drumming up support. The several hundred activists from all over the south-east who turned out to help Labour's succesful campaign to defeat Beackon in Millwall in May have been contacted again with a plea for help – and the response has been good. Any worries that Labour might have had about its Shadwell branch being a typically small and inactive inner-city party have been easily banished. Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats, still reeling after their drubbing in May following the row over their racist propaganda, are fighting an extremely low-key campaign, as indeed are the Tories.

So has Labour over-reacted? Not really. Despite the party's apparent strength, the belt-and-braces approach makes a lot of sense. Many if not all of the underlying social factors that gave the BNP its breakthrough in Millwall last year are present in Shadwell too – and it's better to be safe than sorry.

Like Millwall, from which it is separated only by the gleaming postmodern office blocks of the Canary Wharf complex, Shad-well is a place where the rapid development of London's derelict docklands in the past decade has created dramatic social polarisation. The ward is split in two by the Highway, one of two main roads running east from the City to Canary Wharf. To the north, towards Commercial Road (the other main east-west artery), is some of the most run-down council housing in London, much of it dating back to the 1930s, with unemployment running at more than 50 per cent in some places. To the south, between the Highway and the ward's southern boundary, the Thames riverbank between Wapping and Limehouse is a stretch of affluence: gentrified terraced houses (one David Owen's), converted-warehouse offices and yuppie flats built during the 1980s boom, with surveillance cameras outside and BMWs parked in their gated courtyards.

Many of the offices and flats are empty, but, just as in Millwall, the presence of con-spicuous riches right next to inner-city squalor has created massive resentment among local people, who feel – with reason – that they have not benefited from all the development and that they have been ignored by politicians of all parties. The turnout in May's local elections was just 40 per cent. There's plenty of potential here for a protest vote against the established political parties, even if it's more likely that disaffection expresses itself in still higher levels of abstention.

And then there's race. Shadwell has a far larger ethnic minority population than Millwall – 47 per cent, most Bangladeshi, as against 20 per cent in Millwall. But, because of the young age profile of the Bangladeshi population, only 30 per cent of voters are from ethnic minorities – so Labour cannot simply rely on mobilising the ethnic minority vote on 15 September. As in Millwall in May, to beat the BNP Labour will have to construct a multi-racial coalition.

And that cannot be taken for granted. There are real racial tensions in the ward. The Bangladeshi community is concentrated in the north west, the white working class in the north east. And, although police statistics show that, overall, Shadwell has nothing like the level of "racial incidents" found in Mill-wall and other parts of Tower Hamlets, the estates where the two ethnic communities meet have a reputation for racial violence. The worst single incident in the area came last September when a 17-year-old Bengali boy, Quddus Ali, was almost beaten to death by a gang of white men outside the Dean Swift pub in Commercial Road, Shadwell's north¬ern boundary. The Dean Swift subsequently gained a reputation as a BNP hangout.

For all this, there is little in Shadwell of the siege mentality among working-class whites that is so characteristic of the Isle of Dogs – and little evidence of far-right activity in the area. Unlike the Isle of Dogs, it was something of a stronghold for Oswald Mosley both in the 1930s (Cable Street, where anti-fascists famously stopped Mosley's attempt to march through the then Jewish East End in 1936, runs through the ward) and when he tried to make his comeback in the 1950s. But it was not one of the areas where the National Front did particularly well in the 1970s, again unlike the Isle of Dogs. In recent years, by comparison with much of the rest of the East End, the BNP has for the most part been noticeable by its absence – with the exception of the immediate aftermath of the attack on Quddus Ali – and in the past couple of weeks it has been invisible. "We've not seen anything of them," says Labour organiser David Kershaw. "I'm sure they'll get a few votes, but I think this could be a real humiliation for them." Let's hope he's right.


New Statesman & Society leader, 2 September 1994

"The potential now exists to move the situation towards a democratic and peaceful settlement. I am satisfied that Irish nationalism, if properly mobilised and focused at home and abroad, now has sufficient political confidence, weight and support to bring about the changes which are essential to a just and lasting peace. This is the considered position I put to the IRA."

It was with these words on Monday that Gerry Adams, the president of Sinn Fein, gave notice that the Provisional IRA was about to declare a permanent ceasefire. And on Wednesday, the IRA announced a complete cessation of violence. Twenty-five years of bombings and shootings are coming to an end.

Of course, the ceasefire is a good thing. If Northern Ireland's problem isn't simply one of violence, stopping the violence is undoubtedly a precondition for any attempt to come up with a political solution. More than 3,100 people have died violent deaths since the beginning of the Troubles in 1969 – and more than half of them were killed by the IRA and other republican paramilitaries. The welcome for the IRA's decision to end its repugnant campaign of murder has to be tempered by the observation that it should never have been started in the first place.

The big question is what happens next. In the short term, it's relatively easy to predict. Already, Adams is being hailed in some quarters – particularly in the United States – as a great man of peace: the next few weeks will see a great deal of Sinn Fein triumphalism. On the other side of the sectarian divide, many of Northern Ireland's Protestants are already starting to panic about the IRA's coming in from the cold and what it means for them.

How all this pans out in the medium term, however, depends on how it is handled, particularly by the Irish and British governments. There is undoubtedly a real opportunity for bringing about a lasting peaceful political settlement – but there is equally a real danger of the simmering Northern Ireland conflict erupting into full scale civil war, complete with ethnic pogroms..

The crucial thing is to reassure the unionists that the IRA really has given up on violence and that there has been no shady deal stitched up behind their backs. This means that Sinn Fein should not be allowed into negotiations until the ceasefire has been in force for several months and that the ceasefire must be followed as soon as possible by the total disarming of the IRA.

Given that it is difficult to imagine the Proves unilaterally giving up their rifles and Semtex (although they should be challenged to do so), the most realistic way to disarm them is to get their agreement to a schedule for disarming both republican and loyalist paramilitaries and to a credible system for verifying the process. This makes it crucial that every effort is made in the next few weeks to persuade the loyalist paramilitaries that they, too, are welcome participants in multi¬lateral negotiations on the future of Northern Ireland if they, too, commit themselves to a permanent cease fire.

On the other hand, it has to be made clear by both Dublin and London that there is no way that constitutional change will be forced on the unionists against their wishes. The key here is to reiterate the principle behind the Downing Street declaration, that the only way to find a lasting solution to the Northern Ireland problem is for everyone involved to lay down their arms forever and talk until they can come up with a constitutional settlement that is acceptable to all, with all options open for discussion and neither Dublin nor London attempting to "persuade" other players of the desirability of any particular outcome. (As NSS argued earlier this year, this principle means that Labour should abandon its advocacy of "unity by consent" at the first possible opportunity.)

What such a constitutional settlement might be like is currently impossible to say – and there is certainly no quick fix. Republican dreams of an immediate withdrawal of British troops or of a rapid move towards joint British-Irish sovereignty over Northern Ireland are as much recipes for disaster as unionist schemes for some sort of repartition or for maintenance of an unreformed status quo. Of course, the upshot of the absence of quick fixes is that there is a real danger of patience snapping and the talks breaking down – and if that were to happen, the scenario would be bleak indeed.

But there are many ways in which the likelihood of securing agreement could be enhanced. As last year's Opsahl Commission report argued, there's plenty of room for all sorts of small confidence-building initiatives that, taken together, could have a major impact on the ways that the two communities in Northern Ireland relate to each other. The Opsahl recommendations – a mixture of de-volving power to the people, beefing up anti-discrimination legislation, developing North-South co-operation and introducing measures to stimulate economic and social regeneration – remain the best way forward.