By Paul Goodman
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I was the Sunday Telegraph's Northern Ireland correspondent, in so far as it had one, during the run-up to the IRA ceasefire of 1994, and became fascinated by the politics of the Province. I doorstepped Johnny "Mad Dog" Adair; saw Gerry Adams take holy communion in a Passionist monastery on Crumlin Road; played pool off the Shankill Road. I wasn't against the three-stranded architecture of the "peace process" in itself, but was fiercely opposed to some of the details that came with it – the early release of murderers from prison, for example, and the abolition of the Royal Ulster Constabulary.
The way in which the Blair Government connived in the ruin of Ulster's political middle ground – the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP – in order to stitch up a sectarian deal between the DUP and Sinn Fein/IRA was also a sinister precedent. What I didn't know at the time that the latter was wormed through from top to bottom by informers, which itself was a contributor to the ceasefire I was reporting: rumours even touched the reputation of no less senior a republican than Martin McGuinness himself (though I don't believe them). At any rate, Mr McGuinness is now to shake hands with the Queen when she visits Northern Ireland next week: Sinn Fein realises it cocked it up by boycotting her immaculately successful visit to the Republic last year.
The encounter will be no easier for the Queen than for the republican movement. She takes a detailed interest in the affairs of Northern Ireland, and Lord Montbatten, Prince Phillip's uncle and Prince Charles's "honorary grandfather", was murdered by the IRA. But Mr McGuinness is now Northern Ireland's deputy First Minister, and therefore one of her Ministers – though part of Ulster diplomacy is not to stress this inconvenient truth. Nick Watt of the Guardian, my fellow correspondent during the nineties – he was a rather better one, working then for the Times – worries today that David Cameron, having handled the Bloody Sunday enquiry magnificently, is taking little interest in the province (which Owen Paterson is helping deftly to guide).
If so, this is perhaps a sign that memories of "the troubles" are fading (though not for those maimed by bombs or bullets, and for the families of those who died): "these men, and those who opposed them/And those whom they opposed/Accept the constitution of silence/And are folded in a single party". Sinn Fein apparently drew the line at any meeting linked to the large-scale jubilee party which is to be held in the grounds of Stormont. That, too, is part of the dance of Ulster's diplomacy. But the realities of its settlement could accurately be reflected by Mr McGuinness being photographed at the event while waving a Union Flag.