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?
Next year marks the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the British Empire’s Atlantic slave trade. Slavery had been outlawed on the British mainland for hundreds of years, yet for some reason, it was found acceptable to kidnap huge numbers of healthy Africans, cram them into ships and transport them under appalling conditions to work on the sugar plantations of the Caribbean. As many as 20% of the slaves did not even survive the voyage. Those who did were treated with inhuman cruelty in the pursuit of profit for the British Empire.
Five years ago, eleven of the then fifteen EU countries said that they were prepared to apologise for their part in the evil trade. The occasion was the World Conference Against Racism. Four countries refused to issue an apology, Britain, Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands.
Now we hear that as we prepare for the bicentennial of the abolition, the British government is still not prepared to apologise. Prime Minister Blair has spoken of his ‘sorrow’, but stopped short of an apology. The only possible reason not to apologise is that it would mean we were admitting our culpability. But this was crime against humanity on a massive scale. Both the government and the monarchy of the day were complicit.
I say that the only honourable course is to offer the fullest, unreserved apology. It would be highly appropriate if our nation were to issue that apology prior to the 200 year commemorations.
Everyone remembers where they were on September 11th, 5 years ago. The era of 24 hour televised news means that many, myself included, saw the second impact live. That was the moment you knew that the world had changed forever, because before that, it still might have been an awful accident. Instead, my blood ran cold at the thought that someone could be so evil that they would deliberately crash a plane full of civilians into a building full of civilians. Twice. Then it was four planes (for some reason, everyone talks about the Twin Towers and forgets to mention that there were four planes and two targets).
Such unspeakable acts can only be viewed as cold-blooded mass murder. There is no justification. There were no martyrs – only murderers. The question on everyone’s lips – ‘how do we (the Free West) react to such an attack?’. How do we achieve justice for the families of the victims, and prevent such an atrocity from ever happening again?
Five years later, we have to be adjudged as having failed on both counts. Osama Bin Laden, and his sergeants, are still at large. Not only has he evaded capture, but he is still able to exhort his followers around the world to plan and perpetrate mindless terrorist acts aimed at innocent civilians. His followers have brought murder to London and Madrid – and other despicable plots have been foiled too. We certainly cannot yet claim to feel safe from further attacks.
Our civil liberties have been curbed in the name of the ‘War on Terror’. The United States admits that suspects have been locked up without trial in Guantanamo Bay, and in other locations outside the US. But surely the hardest part to explain to anyone is this: the largest amount of money and manpower in our ‘War on Terror’ has been expended on invading and occupying a country which has no link with Osama Bin Laden and no connection to the 9/11 attacks. So much manpower and hardware has been devoted to Iraq, that our forces in Afghanistan (where most people believe Bin Laden is hiding) are stretched nearly to breaking point. This must be one of the most monumental tactical errors in the history of armed conflict.
Historians will struggle in years to come to explain the incompetence of our leaders.
I have been shocked and saddened by the events unfolding in Lebanon. As I write, the human toll of this latest conflict is more than 400 deaths, 90% of those Lebanese – mostly civilian. While no-one can condone hostage taking by terrorists, Israel is showing an arrogant contempt for human rights and international law. Wholesale bombardment of civilian areas in another country is an outrageous response to the hostage taking. Can any of us have imagined the RAF being scrambled in responses to IRA outages in the seventies and eighties? Of course not – but what is the difference? How sad, then, that the British government did not feel it could condemn Israel’s response and call for an immediate cease-fire.
One thing is certain, brute force alone will not stop the terrorists that plague Israel and her neighbours. Only dialogue can ever lead to any improvement in the situation. I fear that Israel’s heavy-handed response is more likely to serve as a recruiting sargeant for the terrorists. We in Britain have learned this – and that is why the situation in Northern Ireland has improved so much since meaningful dialogue began.
Once again, British foreign policy seems to be slavishly following the Bush agenda. Once again, I am led to question the so-called special relationship between the UK and the US. It seems to be all one-way traffic.
This morning, I hear that there is a possibility of a UN or an EU peacekeeping force being allowed in to Lebanon. I sincerely hope that Britain will be part of it – with or without George W Bush’s permission.