Belfast Telegraph

No thank you for the memoirs, Mr Blair

The former prime minister hoped the peace process would be his legacy. But his new book is silent on the administration he has left us, says Robin Wilson

From the moment Tony Blair arrived in Northern Ireland to save the talks at Castle Buildings in Easter Week 12 years ago - detecting the 'hand of history' on his shoulder - it was evident that the political future of the region would play a key part in the history of Blair himself.

As the sheen burnished by Peter Mandelson quickly faded from 'New' Labour - more spin than substance was the cry from the disillusioned Left-wing comic Ben Elton - Northern Ireland came to represent the Crown jewel in his Government's first term.

In the second term, as Blair behaved more like an executive president and became mired down in his vainglorious project with George W Bush to topple Saddam Hussein, Northern Ireland - if anything - became even more critical to his narcissistic concern with image.

He wanted to go down in the history books, like his 19th century predecessor Gladstone, as the prime minister whose mission had been 'to pacify Ireland' - not as the junior partner in an arguably illegal campaign in Iraq which cost tens or, more probably, hundreds of thousands of civilian lives and saw millions more displaced.

Northern Ireland is, happily, not Iraq, but then as a part of the western democratic world, it was never going to be.

What is remarkable is not how successful Blair was in resolving the Northern Ireland problem, but the uniqueness in western Europe - outside of the Basque country, Corsica and Cyprus - of the region's intercommunal violence; and, even among those comparisons, how long-lasting it has proved.

With no 'peace process' in the Basque country, ETA has been curbed much more seriously than Northern Ireland's paramilitaries by simple pursuit of the rule of law without depredations of human rights.

In 1997, Northern Ireland was characterised by deep communal division and paramilitary violence at the margin and neutral, but remote direct rule from Westminster.

In 2010, Northern Ireland is characterised by deep communal division and paramilitary violence at the margin and an accessible but communalised and dysfunctional government at Stormont.

Why has so little changed - in spite of all the hype?

Blair is a lawyer who showed remarkably little interest in politics when he was a student. So he has the capacity to master a brief, but his conception of politics is very superficial.

In that sense, Northern Ireland was all of a piece with the cavalier Iraq escapade - and how Blair's obsession with 'middle England' and the media meant he failed to construct an enduring coalition of constituencies of popular support and presided over the atrophy of a party which is now only kept out of insolvency by the indulgence of the Co-operative Bank.

What Blair basically got wrong was to see Northern Ireland through Anglo-centric glasses: to him, it was a conflict fundamentally between the British state and the IRA and its resolution, therefore, depended on building a relationship with the IRA leadership of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness.

The former Queen's politics professor, the late John Whyte, famously concluded to the contrary in a vast survey of studies of the problem, demonstrating that Northern Ireland was primarily an internal, sectarian conflict.

This would not, he pointed out, be transformed by the exit of either the British or Irish states from the equation - as, respectively, political Catholics ('nationalists') and political Protestants ('unionists') wanted to believe.

The implication of Whyte's thesis was that violence was what social scientists would call a 'dependent variable' - symptom, in other words, not cause.

Blair's cursory grasp thus meant that he had failed to address the underlying problem, which has only festered in the intervening years.

Hence the unending proliferation of 'peace walls' in Belfast and, indeed, vicious outbursts of racism. Hence also the inability of the two dominant Northern Ireland parties, the DUP and Sinn Fein, to agree anything but a pale shadow of the A Shared Future policy to tackle sectarianism published under direct rule.

Blair admits in his memoirs, published yesterday, that in Northern Ireland he "stretched the truth past breaking point" - that's lying, in plain English - to get agreement.

One Northern Ireland politician whose integrity few would question is Seamus Mallon, the former deputy First Minister.

In his swansong Westminster speech in March 2005 at the end of the second term, he referred to the prime minister - following Mark Antony's acid description of Brutus in Julius Caesar - as "an honourable man".

He accused Blair of "acting in bad faith" and making "under-the-table deals".

In excoriating remarks two years later, Mallon reflected: "In reality, his whole strategy in terms of resolution of the Northern Ireland problem - I don't use the term peace process - was 'who do I buy and who do I sell?'"

Mallon is, of course, in retirement and is not making millions on a global lecture tour.

But he does still have his integrity.

Robin Wilson is the author of The Northern Ireland Experience of Conflict and Agreement: A Model for Export? (Manchester University Press)

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