Peter Hain: 'I was sent a letter bomb by the security forces'
The former Northern Ireland Secretary of State tells Adrian Rutherford why he was once public enemy No.1 in South Africa
QYou were born in Kenya and grew up during the apartheid era in South Africa. What are your memories of that?
AThey are very sharp – for example, my mum and dad being woken up in the middle of the night and being arrested, and of my room being raided by apartheid secret police who searched through my motor racing files for incriminating evidence against my parents, which of course wasn't there.
I can remember my mother being issued with a banning order which prevented her from talking to our teachers or taking part in any kind of social or political activity.
They also stopped her from communicating with another banned person.
And then my father was banned a year after her.
They had never banned a married couple before, and because banned people couldn't communicate with each other, they had to give them special permission and clauses allowing my parents to talk to each other.
QYou would also have seen some of the appalling violence?
AThere was horrendous treatment of black people. The son of a black maid of our family was just savagely beaten in the street for doing nothing other than whistling as he walked along, minding his own business.
QJohn Harris, an anti-apartheid campaigner, was convicted of murder and hanged for his part in a bomb attack at Johannesburg Railway Station which killed a 77-year-old woman and injured 23 others. Why did you speak at his funeral?
AI was 14 or 15 at the time and he was a family friend, although I totally disapproved of – and deplored – the bomb attack.
He intended it to be a spectacular protest against apartheid, at a time when Nelson Mandela was locked up on Robben Island and all the opposition had been banned.
He telephoned a 15-minute warning asking them to clear the concourse. At his trial it was confirmed police deliberately ignored the warning.
To this day I remain totally opposed to what he did, but there was nobody able to read the address at his funeral, and so I volunteered to do it.
QYour parents were eventually forced to leave South Africa.
AThey stopped my father working as an architect. There was little work so we left in 1966 and came to the UK.
QBut you continued to protest against apartheid, including a South African rugby tour to the UK?
AYes. I was, and remain, a sports fanatic and so I, as a young anti-apartheid activist, felt that we had to physically stop these Springbok tours by running on the pitches, by laying siege to the team in their hotels and so on.
Actually, the rugby match scheduled to take place at Ravenhill in Belfast was cancelled because of the threat to security. One took place in Dublin, and there was a big demonstration there.
There were 25 matches, and we demonstrated and interrupted the matches at Twickenham, Murrayfield and right across the country to the extent that the cricket tour that summer was cancelled and white South African teams never toured again until after apartheid was abolished.
QYou were branded South Africa's public enemy number one at one stage?
AYes, I was referred to that in the 1970s.
I was sent a letter bomb by the South African security forces, which fortunately didn't go off. Similar letter bombs assassinated a lot of other anti-apartheid leaders around the world.
I was also framed for a bank theft.
I didn't know anything about it and I was acquitted, but it was later shown to be the work of the South African security force.
QHow did all this make you feel?
AIt reinforced my view that we were being successful. Being branded public enemy number one didn't bother me.
Being sent a letter bomb did bother me, being prosecuted for an offence I hadn't committed certainly bothered me.
Although people disagreed with me politically, vehemently and bitterly, no-one ever said I was dishonest.
Q In that context the row over donations when you ran for the deputy leadership of the Labour Party in 2007 must have hurt you?
AIt was during the last tough period as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, when my mind was focused elsewhere, but people didn't follow the procedures I'd put in place. We hadn't reported all the donations within the 30 day limit as we were required to, and I paid the price when I discovered what happened.
I shopped myself, and I got no thanks for it. It was the worst thing that happened to me in my political life.
QWhat were your thoughts when you were told you had been appointed Secretary of State for Northern Ireland – did you know much about the place?
AI knew a bit about it. I had visited on a number of occasions. I wasn't an expert on the peace process because I'd been involved in other ministerial and cabinet jobs, but I had taken a long-term interest.
I was thrilled because it was a chance to make a difference. That was my watchword throughout my time in government, and has been throughout my political life.
The fact that I was able to do that by helping to negotiate the historic peace deal which devolved government, which I think is irreversible, is one of the proudest things that I have done.
QDid you really believe at the start that one day the DUP and Sinn Fein would go into government together?
ANobody else thought it was achievable, but I actually thought it was possible. I had a sense from the beginning that it was achievable, but it was still one of those 'It will never happen' moments right up until it actually happened.
I thought it was achievable because I had a sense that was the way history was going, if we could do the necessary heavy-lifting to get everything in place, including Sinn Fein supporting policing and the rule of law in Northern Ireland.
I was actually the only optimistic one in my office and amongst the commentariat when I arrived in May 2005.
QAnd you say it's now irreversible?
AI do think so. There will remain bumps – we have just experienced one with Gerry Adams's arrest, which is actually more of a minor tsunami to the process, but I think the fundamentals are irreversible.
You have dissident republicans trying to undermine it but they are tiny and isolated, albeit dangerous when they get their act together. You also have loyalist extremists who have not signed up either.
I think actually the problem of the alienation of loyalists is a big, big challenge and I think they have got legitimate interests and legitimate concerns. I'm not talking about the criminal side, I'm talking about communities who feel left behind. I think that remains to be addressed. It's no good everybody else denying it. It's a reality.
QWhat can be done?
AIn the last nine months of my period as Secretary of State, I engaged with loyalists including what one of my key civil servants euphemistically described as men in uniform, in a way that no Secretary of State had done before, and showed their ideology respect and their culture respect, and I think that's what needs to happen.
You don't have to agree with people, you don't have to approve of all they do, to nevertheless say you are part of Northern Ireland society and your religion is legitimate and important.
QSo do you think it was a wise move antagonising loyalists by removing the flag from Belfast City Hall?
AI'm a former Secretary of State, Northern Ireland is now – happily – governing itself, and so these matters have to be resolved by Northern Ireland's politicians. This is a matter for them.
QYou caused a stir after you left Northern Ireland when you published your memoirs. The Attorney General, John Larkin, tried to prosecute you under a 19th century act, accusing you of scandalising a judge.
AThe act was almost medieval in origin actually, and of course that legislation has now been wiped off the statute book outside of Northern Ireland and across the Commonwealth.
QWere you surprised by Mr Larkin's intervention?
AI was astonished by it, and the fact that he had to retreat and withdraw the prosecution was a profound act of common sense.
QYou did have to clarify what you had written though?
AI gave him a statement of comfort stating what I had said all along, that I was not seeking to impune the judge's integrity or his credibility as a judge, but still I thought he'd done the wrong thing in this instance, and I explained that in my book.
QWhy do you think Mr Larkin took such offence to it?
AI've no idea – it was an excitable over-reaction which was completely incomprehensible to me, to British government ministers, parliamentarians and politicians across the whole of the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland. There was almost unanimous condemnation of it.
It resulted in a change to the law, and I hope it will do so in Northern Ireland in due course, which is a good thing.
QMr Larkin called for an end to Troubles prosecutions. You support that?
AI think he is right on this. Whether the particular vehicle he suggested is right is another matter, but I think Northern Ireland's leaders will have to come back to this agenda sooner rather than later if society isn't just going to be dogged, haunted and crippled by the past.
QBut you accept relatives want justice?
AOf course, and if I were one of the many hundreds of victims I would feel equally bitter and frustrated and distrustful of such suggestions.
However, it is the responsibility of political leaders to resolve these problems, not to shy away from them, and the blunt truth is that most of the victims will never get closure of any kind under the conventional, legal police process.
You cannot get the evidence sufficient to bring these cases to trial.
That being the case, it reinforces even more the necessity to handle this in another way.
It cannot be an amnesty. People accused me of wanting that, and that is simply not true.
John Larkin is suggesting a separate judicial process. In 2005 I introduced the Northern Ireland Offences Bill to Parliament, which I later withdrew, which supported a separate judicial tribunal.
It may be that if those responsible for atrocities and offences on all sides could volunteer in a certain process to account for what they did and bring some closure and explanation to the victims, but then be given immunity – that could be the only way to address some of these offences.
There's a very big difference. An amnesty is a pardon. No-one should be suggesting that.
QThe issue of on-the-runs has been in the news. What is your understanding of what went on?
AI've been very clear and open about it. It was a conventional police administrative process where people asked whether they were wanted, the PSNI and other police forces in Britain investigated the cases and if they weren't wanted, if there wasn't sufficient evidence to pursue them, then they were told that.
It was just a normal police administrative process that had been going on from 2002 – at least. There was no amnesty, there was nothing surreptitious, underhand or illegal about it.
QSenior unionists, including the First Minister, said they were unaware of this?
AI've heard what Peter Robinson has said, and I have a lot of respect for Peter. All I can say is that I operated with total integrity, as did the Chief Constable at the time, Hugh Orde, as did all those involved.
I never knew anything about the individual cases, nor should I have done. It was a police and legal process.
QDo you think Mr Robinson should have known?
AI'm not commenting on that at all. I would just observe that the Eames-Bradley report of 2009 specifically mentioned over 200 cases which have been processed in this way. So it is curious that a lot of politicians have had a sudden amnesia about it all. There was a public document. How you can say you didn't know about it? I don't know.
QYou're a campaigner for homosexual equality. The Assembly has failed to back gay marriage – is that disappointing?
AI voted for gay marriage, when I was Secretary of State I introduced a ban on discrimination on the grounds of goods and services. For example bed and breakfasts saying no gays, just like they used to say no Catholics, or in London no blacks.
The first civil partnership, ironically, was in Belfast.
This is a matter for the Northern Ireland Assembly, but my worry with the Assembly and the system of government is that it seems to me to be paralysed on very many key issues which are actually bread and butter issues, and I'm not particularly referring to gay marriage in that sense.
Northern Ireland has a big series of social, economic and employment challenges, and I think they need to show greater dynamism, but then it's their show now.
QI think many voters would share that frustration.
AIt is frustrating for voters, and I understand that, but from where Northern Ireland has been, this democracy is very young. It will take time and we need to show some patience.
QAnother big issue in the coming months is the Scottish referendum on independence. Are you concerned that a yes vote could impact on Northern Ireland?
AI would be very concerned if Scotland voted for independence. I hope it won't do, because it would be really bad for the UK and for Scotland.
Northern Ireland and Wales would be very small, junior partners with England, without Scotland being alongside them. It upsets the balance of the UK.
Northern Ireland is in a separate constitutional position where its own future is subject to a separate process. No doubt [it could increase agitation for Irish unity] but there is a process established for that if that issue needs to be addressed in the future.
QWhen you look back at your political career are you satisfied? Do you think you achieved as much as you could?
AI wish I had never entered the Labour deputy leadership contest because I didn't do it well for a whole variety of reasons and it ended with a kind of opprobrium which was not really my fault.
But that apart I'm proud of what I did and my proudest experience is my time in Northern Ireland.