THERE'S some excuse for the fatuity of Peter Hain, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. He is, after all - as the great Lindy McDowell of the Belfast Telegraph put it - "a Troubles virgin", who, "like so many of his predecessors", has "been landed in a place he doesn't care for, whose complexities he does not understand and the full horror of whose recent past he doesn't appreciate."
Maybe - as working-class people live in fear of republican and loyalist paramilitaries - when he burbles about his mission to make Northern Ireland "a world class society with a world-competing economy", Hain really believes the nonsense that has been written for him. Maybe he really means it when he assures loyalist paramilitaries that (for a change) "you will not be allowed to terrorise your own communities". Maybe he was just being absent-minded when in his major speech last week he failed to mention that the abandonment of IRA criminality is a prerequisite for the restoration of the Executive.
A charitable interpretation would be that he is even more stupid and ignorant than he appears.
There is, however, no possible excuse whatsoever for Hain's cynical puppet-master, Jonathan Powell, Prime Minister Tony Blair's Chief-of-Staff, who in Northern Irish terms is no virgin, but rather an experienced old slapper.
I met Powell first in Washington in 1993 when I was researching a book to accompany a TV series on the Foreign Office. Powell was 36, had been a diplomat for 14 years and as a result of having been the British observer on Bill Clinton's campaign trail the previous year, was close to the new administration. I was struck by his overweening self-belief: he seemed to think he could run the Foreign Office single-handed with a fax machine. He loved being close to power, so it was no surprise when in 1995 he defected to Tony Blair; twoyears later there was a New Labour government.
I had dealings with Powell for a time as part of a small group who were trying to help resolve the Drumcree crisis and found him quick, receptive, pleasant and well-informed. As with the peace process in general, on matters Orange he worked indefatigably in his secret meetings with all sides to try to find solutions.
So why do I now consider him Perfidious Albion incarnate? Because I believe him to have put the interests of his Prime Minister before morality, sanity and the people of Northern Ireland - and, indeed, the Republic. Blair was the man in the photographs and headlines about the peace process, but Powell is Blair's key adviser and negotiator.
Side-deals were made with terrorists, the centre was destroyed by the appeasement of the extremes, the effectiveness of the police was sacrificed to please paramilitaries of all persuasions and loyalist and republican criminality was ignored. As Dr Alastair McDonnell, the SDLP MP, put it in Thursday night's Channel 4 documentary on the Northern Bank robbery, on being asked why Blair had never confronted Gerry Adams about IRA bank robberies: "The real bottom line is that the Prime Minister was prepared to sacrifice Northern Ireland. It didn't matter much what sort of circumstances the rest of us had to live in here, as long as there weren't bombs going off in London."
It wasn't just republican terrorists that Powell snuggled up to. A few months ago, with UDA Brigadiers Jackie McDonald (who kisses our President) and Andre Shoukri (whose displeasure at coverage of his activities in our sister paper, the Sunday World, has led to violent attacks on distributors' premises and death threats to journalists), Powell allegedly cobbled together a financial deal to buy them off.
It later fell apart, it would seem, because even the Northern Ireland Office could not stomach once more bribing racketeers and drug-dealers to keep them from embarrassing Tony.
Perfidious Powell hasn't sacrificed just the people of Northern Ireland to protect his master. He also seems relaxed about placing Irish democracy in peril.
Powell knows better than most that Sinn Fein is financed by the biggest criminal gang in Western Europe. Yet once the IRA has decommissioned all those weapons now surplus to requirements, you can bet that Perfidious will be putting pressure on the DUP - and indeed, on the Irish government - to pretend that the Provos are now legit.
Even the dimmest unionists are coming to realise that they have less to fear from the Irish government than from the British. Michael McDowell may annoy them when he bangs on about his republicanism and his desire for a United Ireland, but they know he means business when it comes to the IRA.
And not even the most moderate of unionists doubts that Perfidious Albion would tomorrow - without a pang of conscience - hand over the government of Northern Ireland to an unholy alliance of sectarian bigots and unrepentant terrorists and criminals.