Blair's flawed approach to peace in Northern Ireland

Tony Blair's effort in bringing about the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland is often heralded as his greatest achievement, but the approach he took to the peace process has left a mixed legacy.
Robin Wilson
3 September 2010

From the moment Tony Blair arrived in Northern Ireland to save the talks at Castle Buildings in Easter week 12 years ago—detecting the ‘hand of history’ on his shoulder—it was evident that the political future of the region would play a key part in the history of Blair himself.

As the sheen burnished by Peter Mandelson quickly faded from ‘New’ Labour—more spin than substance was the cry from the disillusioned left-wing comic Ben Elton—Northern Ireland came to represent the Crown jewel in his government’s first term.

In the second terms, as Blair behaved more like an executive president and became mired down in his vainglorious project with George W Bush to topple Saddam Hussein, Northern Ireland if anything became even more critical to his narcissistic concern with image.

He wanted to go down in the history books, like his 19th century predecessor Gladstone, as the prime minister whose mission had been ‘to pacify Ireland’—not as the junior partner in an arguably illegal campaign in Iraq which cost tens or, more probably, hundreds of thousands of civilian lives and saw millions more displaced.

Northern Ireland is, happily, not Iraq—but then as a part of the western democratic world it was never going to be. What is remarkable is not how successful Blair was in resolving the Northern Ireland problem but the uniqueness in western Europe, outside of the Basque country, Corsica and Cyprus, of the region’s intercommunal violence—and, even among those comparisons, how long-lasting it has proved.

With no ‘peace process’ in the Basque country, ETA has been curbed much more seriously than Northern Ireland’s paramilitaries by simple pursuit of the rule of law without depredations of human rights.

In 1997, Northern Ireland was characterised by deep communal division and paramilitary violence at the margin and neutral but remote direct rule from Westminster. In 2010, Northern Ireland is characterised by deep communal division and paramilitary violence at the margin and an accessible but communalised and dysfunctional government at Stormont.

Why has so little changed despite all the hype?

Blair is a lawyer who showed remarkably little interest in politics when he was a student. So he has the capacity to master a brief but his conception of politics is very superficial.

In that sense, Northern Ireland was all of a piece with the cavalier Iraq escapade—and how Blair’s obsession with ‘middle England’ and the media meant he failed to construct an enduring coalition of constituencies of popular support and presided over the atrophy of a party which is now only kept out of insolvency by the indulgence of the Co-operative Bank.

What Blair basically got wrong was to see Northern Ireland through Anglo-centric glasses: to him, it was a conflict fundamentally between the British state and the IRA and its resolution therefore depended on building a relationship with the IRA leadership of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness.

The former Queen’s politics professor the late John Whyte famously concluded to the contrary in a vast survey of studies of the problem, demonstrating that Northern Ireland was primarily an internal, sectarian conflict. This would not, he pointed out, be transformed by the exit of either the British or Irish states from the equation—as, respectively, political Catholics (‘nationalists’) and political Protestants (‘unionists’) wanted to believe.

The implication of Whyte’s thesis was that violence was what social scientists would call a ‘dependent variable’—symptom, in other words, not cause. Blair’s cursory grasp thus meant he failed to address the underlying problem, which has only festered in the intervening years.

Hence the unending proliferation of ‘peace walls’ in Belfast and indeed vicious outbursts of racism. Hence also the inability of the two dominant Northern Ireland parties, the DUP and Sinn Féin, to agree anything but a pale shadow of the A Shared Future policy to tackle sectarianism published under direct rule.

Blair admits in his memoirs that in Northern Ireland he ‘stretched the truth past breaking point’—that’s lying, in plain English—to get agreement. Here again he seems blithely unaware of a simple social-science idea which has acquired widespread understanding since the recent financial crisis: ‘moral hazard’.

Just as what Keynes would have described as the capitalists of the casino made fortunes when they won but expected the house—aka the taxpayer—to stand their losses, first SF and, as Northern Ireland polarised politically, the DUP were successively rewarded by Blair for their intransigence by political concessions, with equally deleterious consequences.

This inevitably delegitimised the more moderate political forces essential for power-sharing—as against sharing power out—to work as it should. In a broad historical sweep, it worked better in 1999-2002 than since 2007—and, as the archives now show, better still in the all too brief experiment in 1974.

One Northern Ireland politician whose integrity few would question is Séamus Mallon, the former deputy first minister. In his swansong Westminster speech in March 2005 at the end of the second term, he referred to the prime minister—following Mark Antony’s acid description of Brutus in Julius Caesar—as ‘an honourable man’. He accused Blair of ‘acting in bad faith’ and making ‘under-the-table deals’.

In excoriating remarks two years later, Mallon reflected: ‘In reality his whole strategy in terms of resolution of the Northern Ireland problem—I don’t use the term peace process—was “who do I buy and who do I sell”?’

Mallon is, of course, in retirement and is not making millions on a global lecture tour. But he does still have his integrity.

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