Labour leader had his critics but he re-energised failing peace talks to help deliver Good Friday Agreement, writes Garrett Hargan
“What I welcome above all is that, after keeping us apart for so long, Northern Ireland is now helping to bring us together.”
Those were the words of Tony Blair on November 26, 1998, as he became the first Prime Minister to address the Irish Parliament, created 80 years earlier in defiance of the UK Government.
He was reflecting on an historic achievement which heralded a new dawn in relations.
The Good Friday Agreement (GFA), which helped bring an end to a bloody conflict that claimed more than 3,500 lives, had been signed in April, less than a year into his tenure.
It was a defining moment for Northern Ireland and, in many people’s eyes, the pinnacle of the former Labour leader’s career.
Today marks 25 years since Blair swept into Downing Street after a landslide win in the 1997 General Election. As he took office, murders were still taking place on a regular basis here.
Northern Ireland had become enervated by seemingly endless violence. Mr Blair was thrust into a delicate negotiation process.
Under the banner of New Labour, he proudly straddled the centre ground, guiding Labour to a 179-seat majority.
Mr Blair was the youngest premier of the 20th century and would go on to become Labour’s longest serving PM.
His path aligned with Bertie Ahern, who was elected Taoiseach in June 1997.
Reflecting on the task in 1997, Ahern said: “I wouldn’t say we were optimistic, but we were determined to give it a good crack.
“The plan was he would make a statement in the North and I would make one in Dublin to renew the peace process, which had broken down in 1996.
“Tony Blair came in after Labour being out for a long time. He had a huge agenda, but he gave an inordinate amount of time to the North.
“We had a great working relationship. I was at No 10 every six weeks and he came over here every quarter. We were in the North for weeks on end.
“I had said in my own election that the North was the number one issue that we had to resolve. To get investment and build our reputation, we had to get peace on our own island.”
As a former minister for labour and Fianna Fail chief whip, he was versed in the art of negotiation. Mr Blair on the other hand used his “sharp legal mind” in an informal manner, Mr Ahern said.
The INLA killing of LVF founder Billy Wright in a prison van inside the Maze over the Christmas period in 1997 caused “difficulties”. “Nothing was easy. It was tough right up to Good Friday,” Mr Ahern said.
US senator George Mitchell chaired peace talks with the UUP, led by David Trimble, and the SDLP, led by John Hume.
Mark Durkan, who was part of the SDLP negotiating team. He recalled that on March 30, 1998, a fax was received from Downing Street marked ‘for the eyes of John Hume only’ - a copy of which was also sent to David Trimble.
It was a draft for Strand One of the Good Friday Agreement which Durkan believes had been drawn up by Jonathan Powell (Blair’s chief of staff) based on conversations with David Trimble.
“It wasn’t committed to having ministers, an Executive or anything like that, which meant you wouldn’t have had a North South Ministerial Council etc,” he said.
“John and Seamus went ape when they saw it, not just because the content was so removed from what we were actually trying to negotiate in the talks but also because it was trying in a very high-handed way to say, ‘this is going to just be something done between the UUP and SDLP’, forgetting the fact that these talks were meant to be inclusive.”
John Hume travelled to Downing Street where his opening words to Blair were, “we will not negotiate with a so and so fax machine,” Mr Durkan explained.
He praised Mr Blair and Mr Ahern for being “effective in different and distinct ways”, adding that the British PM was “dealt a good hand, but played it well in April 1998”.
Mr Durkan continued: “Some people write it as though the Good Friday Agreement all happened because Blair was elected.
“People forget the talks process was in place and there were key layers of understanding integral to the agreement that were laid years before; from the Anglo-Irish Agreement (1985), even aspects of the Brooke-Mayhew talks (1991-1992), obviously things from Hume-Adams talks and the Downing Street Declaration (1993).”
The role of then Secretary of State (SoS) for Northern Ireland, Mo Mowlam, should not be understated, Mr Durkan said. She “stayed out of the weeds” but was integral in commitments for equality and human rights’ commissions.
In a male dominated arena, the NI Women’s Coalition (NIWC), co-founded by Catholic academic Monica McWilliams and Protestant social worker Pearl Sagar, became the first women’s party to be elected to peace negotiations.
NIWC’s fingerprints are on the GFA as they introduced proposals regarding victims, integrated education, mixed housing, a civic forum as well as full and equal participation of women in political life and public decision-making.
At the eleventh hour the decommissioning text of the agreement meant the whole process was on the brink of collapse.
With the UUP insistent on some form of guarantee that connected decommissioning to the holding of office, a “letter of comfort” from Mr Blair to Mr Trimble, was enough to seal the deal.
Mr Durkan said, Seamus Mallon told them: “That’s the rot setting in already… and of course that proved to be correct in the sense that the UUP ended up moving to a position that progress on de-commissioning was a pre-condition for allowing ministers to be appointed.”
When the agreement was signed there was a massive outpouring of goodwill and support from the public. Referendums on both sides of the border would make it abundantly clear that the majority of citizens craved peace.
The Omagh bombing came as a major setback and painful reminder that splinter groups were still wedded to terrorism.
In his Nobel acceptance speech in December 1998, Mr Trimble would say of decommissioning: “Any further delay will reinforce dark doubts about whether Sinn Fein are drinking from the clear stream of democracy, or are drinking from the dark stream of fascism.”
As it transpired, the IRA didn’t complete decommissioning of all its arms until September 2005 and the power-sharing Executive would only be set up 601 days after the GFA had been reached in December 1999.
Mr Durkan asserts that in the years after the agreement was signed, Mr Blair could have been stronger as a co-guarantor. He could have “shown authority” on the issue of decommissioning and Mr Durkan was critical of “damage done” via the St Andrews Agreement where changes to the GFA have allowed parties to play “ransom politics” by bringing down Stormont.
A senior minister in Tony Blair’s government and former Northern Ireland Secretary from 2005-07, Peter Hain, was struck that Mr Blair was the first PM to “understand Northern Ireland intuitively”.
Lord Hain explained: “He recognised that the only way to secure progress was to be a genuinely honest broker.
“Blair was genuinely seen as a friend of everybody and an ally of nobody. He was not in anybody’s pocket."
Key to Blair’s success were Jonathan Powell, Downing Street’s Chief of Staff, who was across detail in a “forensic fashion”. And, Mo Mowlam, who “put her arms around everybody and gave them a hug… and established a good relationship and sense of empathy with the average citizen in Northern Ireland,” Lord Hain explained.
The outworking of the Good Friday Agreement flowed far beyond 1998. Since devolution began, NI has been without a government for a third of its existence: it lurches from one crisis to the next.
Between 2002-2007 the political institutions were suspended amid allegations of IRA intelligence gathering at the Northern Ireland Office.
Lord Hain recalled an emergency in March 2007 when fifteen British navy personnel were captured at gunpoint by Iranian forces which epitomised Mr Blair’s approach to Northern Ireland.
Chairing sensitive talks with Ian Paisley and his DUP delegation, Mr Blair dealt with the hostage situation and returned within an hour to resume discussions.
At that time Lord Hain was at the tail end of his role as Secretary of State. The centre ground once occupied by the UUP and SDLP had become marginalised by the extremes of the DUP and Sinn Fein.
That led to resentment within the UUP and SDLP, but Lord Hain made no apology for seeking to bring repelling republican and loyalist forces together.
At that time there had been no dialogue between Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley; they wouldn’t have discussed the weather if caught beside each other at the Stormont urinals.
The key issue that had to be solved was Sinn Fein signing up to policing and justice which was a major obstacle to grassroots republicans who had violently opposed such forces.
“We achieved something that nobody ever thought was possible,” Lord Hain said. Since 2010 that “honest broker role” has been “broken”, in his view.
He added: “I do despair about No 10. Successive secretaries of state, with the exception of Julian Smith, who I think did a fine job, I just don’t think they get it.
“I don’t think Northern Ireland is high on their priority list, Brexit dogmatism is their priority...
“I don’t enjoy saying this, because what I’m seeing is my work, and Tony Blair’s work, Paul Murphy’s work and John Murphy’s work, going back to Mo Mowlam… a lot of what we did is being undone.”
Aside from Northern Ireland, other aspects of Mr Blair’s tenure have been heavily criticised. While attempting to galvanise peace here, UK forces entered into a protracted and destructive Iraq war in March 2003.
Troops were deployed on the premise that the Middle Eastern country possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMD). However, no stockpiles of WMDs or an active WMD program were ever found in Iraq.
Academic studies have indicated that about half a million people died in Iraq as a consequence of the war. That includes over 186,000 civilians, according to Iraq Body Count.
Veteran anti-imperialist campaigner and socialist Eamonn McCann has been a vocal critic. He said: “For all of time to come, the ghosts of Iraq will haunt the soul of Tony Blair.
“Different views might legitimately be taken about Blair’s actions on Ireland, his record on women’s rights, his approach to the economy and much else.
“But there is no moral basis for ambivalence about his role in Iraq.
“Blair lured the British people into a war which took the lives of hundreds of thousands of innocent people and helped detonate the events which continue to rumble and ruin the Middle East.
“One of his day-jobs now is running the ‘Blair Institute for Global Change,’ which self-describes its mission as ‘to help countries, their people and their governments address some of the most difficult challenges in the world today.’ The mind boggles. The effrontery takes the breath away.”
In February 2014 the On the Run letters scheme came to light. More than 200 people were told they were no longer wanted for paramilitary crimes committed before the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
Mr Blair maintained that the peace process would have collapsed without them.
However, Sandra Harrison, sister of lance corporal Alan Johnston who was murdered by the Provisional IRA in 1988 believes Tony Blair “lost his moral compass” when it came to dealing with Northern Ireland.
“He was perceived by everyone as being the man who brought about peace, but if we knew then what we know now, we should have chased him back to Westminster,” she said.
“The innocent victims paid the price of his peace deal, Blair gave murderers ‘on the run’ letters which gave them immunity from any kind of justice.
“His legacy to us is one of total underhand tactics to make a name for himself. He should be holding his head in shame for what he has done to innocent victims and their families in Northern Ireland.”
Tony Blair was responsible for introducing the Civil Partnership Act 2004 which allowed legal recognition of civil partnership relationship between two people of the same sex.
He also cracked down on the exploitation of workers by bringing in the minimum wage, he oversaw expansion in higher and further education and poured money into early years learning.
Feargal Cochrane, author and professor of international conflict and analysis, believes Mr Blair’s strong relationship with Dublin and Washington meant he could deliver what Major could not.
“His overall legacy was to help manage the peace process to a negotiated agreement and he was quite skilful in doing so — but this was achieved with the help of others — so his legacy is very much a team effort rather than a solo run I think.
“However, Mo Mowlam has just as strong a claim to his legacy as Blair does himself and I think he did make mistakes, one of which was to replace Mowlem as SoS with Peter Mandelson much too early and also to allow unionists to negotiate over her head directly with him which undermined her authority somewhat.
“I think Blair helped to create the dynamic for peace in the 1990s bringing an energy, optimism and authority into the talks when they could just as easily have failed.”