Belfast Telegraph

Tony Benn interview: Peace in Northern Ireland is worth working for

By Audrey Watson

Former Labour MP Tony Benn has sent a message to the people of Northern Ireland asking them not to give up on the Good Friday Agreement.

"Peace is really worth working for," says the 77-year-old, who will be in Belfast, later this month, as part of the Belfast Festival at Queen's.

"I was absolutely delighted to be asked to take part in the festival," he says, agreeing that there are interesting times ahead, especially with the suspension of the Assembly.

However, despite the turmoil at Stormont, he speaks positively about the prospect of lasting peace in the province.

"The Assembly suspension is an awful tragedy," says the man, whose controversial opinions on Northern Ireland have not endeared him to the unionist community, "but I remain an optimist, because most people in Northern Ireland appear to want the Belfast Agreement to work."

As expected, the veteran left-winger has his own views on how to resolve the current political impasse.

"It all seems to me like the latest example of a unionist veto on progress," he explains.

"I think that David Trimble is under very heavy pressure from his party, and walking out because of the latest events, is really just a way of trying to stop progress.

"In my opinion, the British government should say, 'Right, if you don't want to participate, we will indeed have direct rule, but it won't be from London, it'll be from London and Dublin, jointly'.

"John Reid and Mr Blair would then work with the Taoiseach, which would put a lot of pressure on the unionists to stay in, because they certainly don't want that to happen."

"Sadly, it seems as if the rejectionist wing are saying, 'we don't want this, we want to go back to when we dominated the North,' and Sinn Fein can be depicted as just a lot of wreckers.

"To blame Gerry Adams for the Real IRA would be like blaming David Trimble for loyalist violence.

"Trimble is no more responsible for that than Adams is for the Real IRA.

"I hope I don't give offence to anyone, but that's what I feel in my heart."

Mr Benn, who retired from Parliament, last year is philosophical about the future role of the DUP and, in particular, Ian Paisley.

"I know Mr Paisley very well, he speaks authentically for an element in the unionist community that still regard the Pope as the greatest threat, and don't like the nationalists.

"Maybe at an election he would pull the vote of people who took that view and who think Trimble has sold out.

"There are people who think Trimble has sold out and there are people who think Gerry Adams has sold out.

"In the end, you only make peace when the real representatives of both communities have to face each other."

To many political observers, this one-time firebrand, has mellowed and he himself admits that the death of his beloved wife Caroline, has made him more conscious of the importance of family and relationships, but there is no way Tony Benn will hang up his political boots.

"I gave up Parliament - I was there 51 years, so I wasn't skiving - to devote more time to politics, that was what my wife suggested to me, before she died.

"Over the last few days, I've been all over the country.

"I'm travelling around, engaged in a huge, sort of political campaign, except I'm not asking anyone to vote for me.

"I'm trying to re-establish the principle of the public meeting, where people can actually come and hear an argument, put questions and so-on.

"The response has been absolutely phenomenal.

"Up in Glasgow, there were 1800 people two nights running, crammed back to the doors.

"They say people aren't interested in politics, but I don't agree with that.

"What they don't like are soundbites, punch-ups on Newsnight and abuse in the House of Commons."

When asked why he doesn't take it easier now that old age is upon him, his answer is humbling, and should shame many of today's power players.

"Well, you see politics for me is very simple," he says.

"I've got four children and 10 grandchildren and I ask myself what's going to happen to them?

"Will they have a job, will they have a home to live in, will their children be educated, will they be looked after if they lose their job, will they be cared for in old age, will they have to go to war, as I did as a child?

"That's what politics is really about for me, it's not just about climbing up to the top of the greasy poll.

"You try and encourage people and that's what my life is now about."

McGuinness right about the 11-Plus

LIKE his late wife, respected teacher and educationalist, Caroline De Camp, one of Tony Benn's passions is educational reform and he is totally supportive of Martin McGuinness's determination to abolish the 11-Plus.

"I feel very strongly about education and I'm sure Martin McGuinness is right.

"When you start educating people on a different basis from everyone being developed to the full extent of their talent - which is what comprehensive education is about - and you move to the idea that education should be based on religion, it helps the divide.

"Christian, Jewish, Muslim schools, I'm very doubtful about them.

"I think they start the sectarianism for which we are now all paying the price.

"But I think also, there is a school of thought among the establishment, that education is about finding so-called specially-gifted children and training them to run the world and shunting everyone else into the labour market, where they will just simply obey orders.

"So I think Martin McGuinness is absolutely right about that and funnily enough, his campaign for comprehensive education in Northern Ireland, may turn out to be more controversial than his record in the old days, when he was involved in the armed struggle."

'Paisley's such an attractive rogue'

IT'S a bit of a surprise to hear that during his years in Parliament, Benn, a firm believer in Irish unity, enjoyed a very cordial relationship with Ian Paisley.

In the latest edition of his diaries, Free at Last (Hutchinson £25), he even goes so far as to describe the DUP leader as, "an attractive old rogue".

"Personally, I try to get on with everybody," he explains, "and I've always had very courteous relations with Ian Paisley.

"I used to enjoy teasing him.

"When there was the vote on abortion, he voted against it and I said to him, 'Now Ian, you and the Pope in the same lobby!'

"Then we had a vote on homosexuality and he voted against again, and I said, 'Now look Ian, the Vatican and the DUP are getting too close for comfort'.

As I've said before, he authentically represents a group of people who resent the fact that nationalists have any role whatever in the government of Northern Ireland.

"But you shouldn't fight politics in a nasty way. I try to get on with everybody.

I had a debate in London last night, at the Royal Festival Hall, with David Davies, about public services.

He'd been chairman of the Tory Party until he was sacked a month ago, and I was chairman of the Labour Party.

"We had a very interesting debate in front of 1500 people, thrashing out the issues with no ill-will.

Personal hostility is not only totally irrelevant, but it switches people off.

If you are unemployed, your mum can't get a hip operation, or your grandfather can't live on his pension and you turn on the telly and you hear people abusing people, it just switches you off and it switches me off.

"I know it's a radical thing to say, but I've never really believed the argument in Ireland was a religious one.

Being a socialist, I believe it's about the issues that socialists are concerned with - the gap between wealth and poverty, the need for internationalism and not nationalism and so on and so on.

And I have never really taken the view that if the Pope and Ian Paisley met together and issued a concordat, the problems would be resolved.

The Pope funded King Billy at the time when William of Orange scored his triumphs - he was supported by the Pope.

"And of course, I couldn't resist mentioning that to Ian when I saw him."


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