Since John Reid was parachuted into Belfast to replace Peter Mandelson as minister for Northern Ireland little has been heard of him and everything has been - relatively - quiet on the Belfast front.

This is probably because most political minds in the province are currently concentrated on the impending general election - not on whether Tony Blair or William Hague will win but on whether David Trimble's Ulster Unionist Party is going to lose heavily.

One of the oddities of Northern Ireland's place in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is that although it sends MPs to Westminster none of the British political parties field candidates there. So the contest for the eighteen seats at Westminster is between the Ulster Unionists, the Social Democrats, the Democratic Unionists, Sinn Fein and a few others.

At present Mr Trimble's Ulster Unionists hold nine of these but such is the disillusionment among Protestants with the failure of the IRA to decommission its arms that it is thought likely that the party could lose three or four of them and that, in turn, Mr Trimble would lose the leadership of the party to hard liners opposed to the Good Friday agreement.

Against this background Mr Reid yesterday took the risk, for a London minister, of intervening in Northern Ireland's politics by urging support for the Good Friday agreement - in effect, saying Vote for Trimble.

Mr Reid deployed the argument that things are better in Northern Ireland than they have ever been, even it they're not perfect. This approach assumes that the Protestant community is made up of sensible open-minded people who want progress, however slow, towards peace. Some might say it is a risky assumption.

Ray Fleming

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