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It’s up to history to decide if Tony Blair was sincere

By Dermot Nesbitt

Tony Blair was an ideas man, I believe. He had an idea that he could solve the problem of Northern Ireland, as he saw it, in the terms of what Gladstone had talked about (William Gladstone had famously declared in 1868 “my mission is to pacify Ireland”).

So he put in a great deal of commitment, a great deal of time and energy, into the problem. Whether he approached it properly, or told the truth at all times — he admits to stretching it beyond breaking point — that is another matter, but that was his approach.

The fact is Tony Blair was a person who had never run a Government department, never knew how to operate a budget, never knew about what David Trimble referred to as the drudgery of Government.

No matter when you met Tony Blair, and we went into Downing Street regularly, he would put you at ease. You never felt you were dealing with a Prime Minister, you were just having a chat about some serious issues.

In contrast, when unionists had gone, over the years, to meet Northern Ireland ministers they were put at the other side of a huge desk, with officials all around.

With Blair, just Jonathan Powell (chief of staff) would be in the corner, taking notes.

I haven’t got through the entire book yet, but it is a good read. If anything has surprised me, it is the frankness of the book. He does appear to be trying to tell things ‘warts and all’, at times to his own cost. Even if I don’t agree with it all, it is a timely publication.

In setting out his 10 points (on conflict resolution), I think Blair is quite accurate and perceptive.

But he is very demeaning of the UUP and fails to understand the context we had to work in (Blair writes that in negotiations the unionists could follow each other “helter-skelter over the cliff” compared to the “unity in motion” of republicans).

Sinn Fein was a ruthless party coming from a paramilitary background, we were coming from a democratic tradition. He failed, in a sense, to give sufficient support to the Ulster Unionist perspective.

When it began to be felt David Trimble could not deliver, he ditched us.

Overall I am reminded of the quote, attributed to Anonymous: “To succeed in public life, you have to be sincere. Once you can fake that, you have got it made.” It will be up to the historians to decide whether Tony Blair was sincere or not.

Dermot Nesbitt was Environment Minister in the Ulster Unionist/ SDLP-led administration and a senior negotiator alongside UUP leader, now Lord, Trimble. He is now a member of the Equality Commission.

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