Tuesday, May 08, 2007

In Praise Of Tony Blair

Admiration From A Rebel

I have never been New Labour. I disobeyed the Labour Whips 11.4% of the time in the 2001-5 Parliament. Yet I am full of admiration for the role Tony Blair has played in a matter which was always at the top of my political agenda in my period as an M.P. - the search for peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland (NI).

I know that many others played their part, but a great deal of credit goes to Tony for the stage we have now reached.

Will Republicans Let It Work?

Sinn Fein (SF) have moved to a position where their whole future rests upon their making the new NI Executive work (or, at least, they must not be seen to be guilty if it collapses).

To start with, they can not return to the armed struggle without now looking like Al-Qaeda. They would then be finished as a Political Party who are dependent on significant electoral support.

Yet they have a political project open to them which will be greatly enhanced if they can contribute significantly to the success of the new NI set-up. If peace, prosperity and cross-border trade boom, then SF's electoral standing in the Irish Republic could grow significantly. For SF are firmly and traditionally an all-Ireland Party.

SF have a great deal to gain if they can help the NI Executive to function, but they will be struggling to hold onto what they now have if they are seen to let it fail. For the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) is waiting in the wings to re-capture its former support amongst Catholics if things go wrong for SF.

Will Unionists Let It Work?

Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) have an image of intransigence. But they can claim that this has been intransigence for a purpose and that it has succeeded.

In legal terms, Northern Ireland is still firmly part of the United Kingdom. The arms formerly used by the Provisional IRA have effectively been decommissioned. It is SF that is obliged to participate in a NI Executive and not the DUP that has been forced into a United Ireland. SF has also accepted the general role of the Police Force in NI.

With what the DUP feels are its major guarantees in place, it has then become possible for it to play the leading role in the NI Executive by taking the posts of First Minister and Finance Minister.

Strong differences will remain between the DUP and SF, but these will be in areas which are the normal give and take of the parliamentary game. Hard fought compromises can be reached in areas such as education, agriculture and the environment. For all such compromises by their nature are temporary and changes can always be pressed for in the future.

I have observed three of the DUP's four new Ministers in action in the official and unofficial avenues of the Commons and believe them to be clear as to what they are up to. They feel that their intransigence has worked satisfactorily, so they now have a framework in which a more normal form of politics can work.

They also know that if they blow it, Reg Empey's Ulster Unionist Party might then reclaim sufficient votes from Protestants to take over the DUP's leading role.

Building The Current Framework

There was no inevitability about us reaching the current position in NI politics. Without a great deal of patience and skillful manoeuvring we would not have the current hopes. The first NI Minister to find a formula to draw SF into the thought of involvement was a Conservative, Peter Brooke. Whilst the Republic of Ireland, the USA and others played important roles. But there was no more important actor in all this than Tony and the use he made of a series of dedicated Labour Minister's in the Northern Ireland Office - including Peter Mandelson (whom I never otherwise have a good word for.)

None of us have any right to criticise our departing Prime Minister, unless we first of all acknowledge this great success.


Anonymous said...

Good to see some stuff about Ireland, Harry!

Whilst Blair may have done a good job here - and I am certainly not here to deny that - I have feeling his "mark" on the Party will be quite the opposite.

So, as the Leadership election draws closer, how do you stand? My Hain/Cruddas doubts have begun to creep back, I fear. The McDonnell/Meacher "conflict" stills fails to come to a close - though you already know with whom I stand in that case.

Anyhow, I too look forward to meeting you this autumn!

Take care, Comrade,


Harry Barnes said...


My general thoughts on Blair appear on the next item called "13 Wasted Years" and I had to suffer them all in the Commons! Also it gives my latest on the Leadership contest.
All the best,