Watching the final hours of the Blair years yesterday, one could not help but be struck by the two sides of Tony Blair. It was, perhaps, fitting that the last word in the house went to Ian Paisley. For, it would have seemed incredible for much of my life that anyone could persuade Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness to work together for the future peace and prosperity of Northern Ireland. But that is what the ‘patient, thorough, thoughtful, diplomatic’ Blair pulled off – and despite my opinions of Blair in so many areas, we should never lose sight of what an incredible achievement that was. It will be, and deserves to be remembered as part of Blair’s legacy.
It makes a bitter, ironic contrast with his handling of the ‘special relationship’ with the US Presidency. Blair was clearly enthralled by George W Bush, a hawkish neo-conservative who should have been politically as far from New Labour as it was possible to be. Thus followed the spectacle of a moderate left of centre British government marching to war on the coat-tails of Bush’s right-wing crusade to change the face of the Middle East. Unable to secure UN mandate, or the backing of our other allies in the EU, he resorted to a tissue of half-truths and deceptions to gain the backing of his parliament. Make no mistake, the history books of the future will have this monumental misjudgment right up there with Suez.
Now Blair is to be an envoy to the Middle East. On the basis of the first example above, one would think – if anyone can get these people talking – he can. But on the basis of the second, one doubts if the Arab world will ever be able to do business with him. I hope I’m wrong.
When I was about ten, my I found myself standing outside in a car park on a cold day soaking wet and wearing nothing but swimming trunks. The location was Wyndley Leisure Centre, and we were outside because of a ‘bomb scare’. My first job was in Birmingham city centre, and bomb scares were a routine part of life in the city that had seen the terrible pub bombings.
As I became politically aware, I wanted to understand what motivated people to rain such mayhem on the British population – and read about the history of the ‘troubles’. I concluded that while it was difficulty for an Englishman to truly understand the depth of feeling on both sides, it would only every be resolved by the ballot box and by both sides being able to have a dialogue. Churchill’s famous quote about ‘jaw-jaw’ being better than ‘war-war’ comes to mind. But for many years, the idea of dialogue seemed a forlorn hope – each side holding such deeply entrenched bitterness which just got worse with each sectarian outrage.
So how great is the news today that the DUP and Sinn Fein will finally be working together to bring long-lasting peace to the Province. Unthinkable as it may have seemed for so long, dialogue has won out over violence. I hope that we have finally consigned the troubles to the history books – and that the ordinary people whose lives have been so blighted in the past can look forward to happy, peaceful lives.
As we ponder Blair’s legacy, I have heard his supporters point to the Northern Ireland peace process as one of his achievements. I take this with some salt, as the process was begun by John Major – and only an insane Prime Minister of any party would not have carried it forward.
But if Northern Ireland has proved that jaw-jaw is better than war-war, what on earth was he thinking when he invaded Iraq?
The IRA statement issued today must be welcomed by everyone interested in peaceful, political advancement of devolution in Northern Ireland. The IRA seem to have realised what we could have told them twenty years ago – namely their chances of achieving a re-united Ireland by violent intimidation of the British people were nil. Conversely, by peaceful negotiation there is a really possibility of a future status for the Province that allows everyone to get on with their lives together.How ironic it is that as we move away from the spectre of terrorism on one front, another group now believes it can achieve anything by terrorising British citizens going about their ordinary lives. The ballot box is more effective than the bomb in British politics. The disaffected must engage with our political process.