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Saturday, 26 October, 2002, 16:12 GMT 17:12 UK
Murphy returns to take hot seat
BBC NI political editor Mark Devenport

Anyone under the impression that Northern Ireland is the centre of the universe got a nasty shock this week, when the peace process got caught in the back draught of the education secretary Estelle Morris' sudden resignation.

In the ensuing cabinet re-shuffle, John Reid packed his bags in order to take over the chairmanship of the Labour Party, and former political development minister Paul Murphy returned to take over the hot seat at Hillsborough Castle.

Some unionists and nationalists sought to analyse the switch in terms of Dr Reid being either rewarded or punished.

Northern Ireland Secretary Paul Murphy
The new man at the helm - Paul Murphy
But the fact was that Tony Blair had other fish to fry.

Yes, the timing was unfortunate so soon after the suspension of devolution.

However, no prime minister has ever won a UK general election by telling voters "it's the peace process, stupid".

By contrast "Education, Education, Education" has undeniably been a Blairite slogan.

High profile

Paul Murphy, the quiet man of Welsh and now Northern Irish politics, can take heart from his first walkabout at a shopping centre in Bangor.

True, he was never likely to get a frosty reception in this safe largely middle class area.

But it was genuinely surprising how many shoppers remembered the new secretary of state from his last stint here - a reminder that direct rule ministers had a higher profile in the days before devolution.

Mr Murphy may also take some heart from Gerry Adams' speech to a Sinn Fein gathering in Monaghan.

In contrast to the IRA's dismissal of "unrealistic demands", Mr Adams seemed remarkably conciliatory in tone.

Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams
Gerry Adams responded to Tony Blair's Belfast speech
He looked forward to a future without the IRA and a world with Sinn Fein on the Policing Board.

Indeed, the Sinn Fein president responded to Tony Blair's avowedly "undiplomatic" comments about republicans at the Belfast Harbour Commission by showering the prime minister with praise.

Times have changed since republicans kept John Major hanging on for a resumption of the IRA ceasefire.

Now, Gerry Adams recognises that, like it or not, all roads lead to Tony.

There is, of course, a long and difficult path to traverse between the present trough in the process and Gerry Adams' vision of a future without either the IRA or the loyalist paramilitaries.

But if there is anyone who can guide the politicians around the many obstacles, and indulge in a little lateral thinking when they appear to reach a dead end, it is perhaps Paul Murphy, a secretary of state whose famous patience and gentility will undoubtedly be put to the test in the months ahead.

Find out more about the latest moves in the Northern Ireland peace process

Devolution crisis

Analysis

Background

SPECIAL REPORT: IRA

TALKING POINT

AUDIO VIDEO
See also:

19 Oct 02 | N Ireland
19 Oct 02 | N Ireland
19 Oct 02 | N Ireland
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