Belfast Telegraph

Don't take Labour's grasp of NI history with a pinch of salt ... try a pillar

Would the party have done a deal with Peter Robinson and the DUP to get Ed Miliband into 10 Downing Street back in 2015?

They would have bitten his arm off, writes Henry McDonald

The 'miracle' of St Andrews, when Ian Paisley supposedly shimmied up to Martin McGuinness and the love-in known as the 'Chuckle Brothers' began, never, of course, happened.

Despite the best efforts of a recent film production and some media myth-making, the Paisley-McGuinness partnership never produced a full agreement at the Scottish university town in the autumn of 2006.

It took further weeks and months of cajoling and horse-trading to produce a deal that led to almost a decade of unbroken power-sharing government, headed up by Sinn Fein and the DUP.

And that once-unthinkable arrangement between old foes almost never happened in large part due to the naivete of Tony Blair and his negotiating team.

The blueprint of St Andrews, which became the subsequent deal, had two key foundations: Sinn Fein support for the police and the justice institutions within Northern Ireland.

They were always Paisley's bottom line and he eventually got his way in large part thanks to the insistence of not the British, but rather the American and Irish governments.

Blair, Jonathan Powell and the Labour government were prepared to let Sinn Fein fudge the policing/justice issue, rather than give their full, public, explicit support for the rule of law.

But, as the American academic Mary Alice Clancy outlined in her book on St Andrews and the political fallout from this time, it was principally the Americans, in the persona of Mitchell Reiss, who insisted there could be absolutely no ambiguity about support for policing and justice.

It was actually George W Bush's special envoy to Northern Ireland who drew the line in the sand over the necessity for Sinn Fein to back the police and the justice system in Northern Ireland. In this, Reiss had the support of the Republic's then justice minister, the pugnacious, legally trained Michael McDowell.

By contrast, Blair and his team were willing to risk the whole St Andrews edifice collapsing in their desperation to get a deal - any deal - in which they could then bask in glory.

So, when you hear Blair's one-time communications director, Alastair Campbell, denouncing the forthcoming deal between the DUP and Theresa May's Tories, it is worth reaching not for a pinch, but rather a pillar, of salt.

Reacting at the weekend to the possibility of the DUP propping up a Conservative government, Campbell described such an arrangement as "sordid, dangerous and distasteful".

The response to this humbug is to cast your mind back to the years when David Trimble's leadership of the Ulster Unionist Party was in turmoil and support was slipping fast within the unionist electorate.

Tony Blair's government took a decision (in hindsight perhaps a canny one) that Trimble and the pro-Good Friday Agreement unionists were dispensable. New Labour would reach out to Paisley and the DUP instead.

Having previously portrayed Paisley and his party in the heady days after Good Friday 1998 as out-of-touch dinosaurs, Blair and his allies later flattered, wooed and tempted the DUP into the big tent.

To an extent, of course, the strategy worked, but as for the morality of it, there were plenty of people around at the time who would have portrayed it as "sordid, dangerous and distasteful". Jonathan Powell certainly took some risks, too, in his secret diplomacy with the IRA leadership, meeting among others the late Brian Keenan.

Most of the Irish and British media fell hook, line and sinker for the carefully constructed image of Keenan being described as a potential hardliner and opponent of the Gerry Adams/Martin McGuinness peace strategy. In fact, Keenan was fully on-board with the movement's project and, besides, Adams still held the centre of power within the Provisionals.

After the Real IRA split of 1997, there was no real threat of another schism - let alone an existential threat to the Adams-McGuinness axis.

Nonetheless, it was probably to the good that Powell maintained dialogue and a back channel to the likes of Keenan - even if many would see this kind of covert parleying as "sordid, dangerous and distasteful".

Fast-forward, then, to 2015, just before the-then general election, when most British pollsters and political pundits predicted a hung parliament instead of the small majority that David Cameron actually obtained.

Back then, the DUP were well-prepared for being kingmakers, if needed, to help come on-board and form a government.

They had even drawn up their 12-page Northern Ireland Plan, which was essentially a shopping-list of demands to the two main parties at Westminster as the price for putting either of them in power.

Yes, the DUP's 2015 'list' (most of it socio-economic, just like the one they are drawing up now for Theresa May) was on offer to both Labour and the Conservatives.

The DUP was ready to help Ed Miliband into 10 Downing Street if Labour had been more favourable to their demands than the Tories.

Their key strategist then, just as he still is behind the scenes today, Peter Robinson, thought that it was wise to hedge the DUP's bets; to wait and see which big national party offered them the best deal.

Of course, the DUP will never back Jeremy Corbyn for Prime Minister, given his past support for Irish republicanism. Yet, only two years ago, the DUP was prepared to think about giving his predecessor the keys to 10 Downing Street.

And while this never happened, due to Cameron's victory at the general election, you have to wonder just what would have occurred if it had been a hung parliament just like today.

Would Miliband and Labour have eschewed the DUP's offer of support to get back into government because they disliked the Ulster party's line on gay rights, or abortion? Would senior Labour insiders and supporters outside the party, like Campbell, have denounced that possible arrangement as "sordid, dangerous and distasteful"?

Or would Miliband's Labour have bitten the bullet, agreed to the DUP's more-reasonable demands for Northern Ireland's economy and society and then walked back into Downing Street?

The answer to that counter-factual, 'What if?' of history is an obvious one: they would have bitten Peter Robinson's arm off.

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