Probably the most sentient piece of journalism I’ve seen on Northern Ireland for some time. Frank Millar asks whether it matters if Tony Blair is around to collect on his sunken capital (subs needed) in Northern Ireland. And he gauges the opinion inside what is, increasingly, the only party that matters going forward: the one time pariahs of the DUP. History has a way of concealing its own narratives:
The dreary steeples have witnessed a number of significant departures since the peace process took root. When “pan-nationalism” was at its height, the loss of US President Bill Clinton (not to mention the arrival of President Bush) might have seemed more than the process could bear. Yet it proved otherwise.
Interestingly he probes the newer, underlying, assumption of the Peace Process which was that the two extremes had to be drawn inside the same democratic tent in order to make politics work in Northern Ireland. It’s also a key assumption in our own report on the future of Unionism, A Long Peace?. But (and here’s the context for tonight’s threat from Hain):
…while Blair and Ahern pray the Rev Ian Paisley really does want to play out his final days as First Minister, realists in both systems (as well as in Sinn Féin) allow privately they may actually have to wait for Peter Robinson. In other words, it is never quite the end of history. And in fairness Northern Secretary Peter Hain stopped short of making that claim in Dundalk last week.
However, he is adamant that history will certainly be put on hold if Paisley and the DUP do not deliver this autumn – “because the world will move on”. Blair’s official spokesman echoes the same message – implicitly warning the DUP against “waiting for Gordo” – insisting next month’s talks in Scotland represent “a unique window of opportunity”. And just in case anyone still has not got the point, Northern Ireland Office Minister David Hanson suggests the consequences of not taking it could be “dire”.
Now get this. He makes three points drawn from conversations with people inside Whitehall:
First that, despite his (Brown’s) determination to extend his treasury control over almost every government department, Brown has shown little interest in Northern Ireland.
Second, that Hain’s view probably approximates with Brown’s own, that the North’s political class (“really, for the most part, at lower council level,” as one source puts it) is pampered and over-indulged.
And third, that the cautious Brown believes Blair has invested too much in the North for too little return, and to the neglect of Labour’s real “domestic” priorities.
Then, assuming that with regard to Northern Ireland at least Brown might prove more Atlee than Blair:
…some senior NIO officials think Brown’s chief critic, Charles Clarke, would be ideal for the role. While acknowledging that the same personal commitment will probably not be there – and officially observing the “absolute” nature of the November 24th deadline – official sources with long experience also privately admit “it’s probably not needed”.
And this, they say, is because “everybody knows where agreement lies” and because the political reality – that the process is only driven by a successful Anglo-Irish partnership – “has been internalised on both sides all the way back to Sunningdale”[my italics.
And finally Blair and Ahern’s dilemma:
What neither of them yet knows is whether the DUP will gamble on delay. Key Blair aides say that would be “at the very least a risky bet”. And the Robinson wing of the DUP sees little virtue in delay for its own sake since, as one “moderniser” puts it, “the deal will be the same whether it’s Tony Blair, Gordon Brown or David Cameron”.
Others close to Dr Paisley, however, take the harsher view – shared incidentally at the highest levels of the SDLP – that Brown could hardly do a worse job given what they see as Blair’s total inability ever to face-down Sinn Féin.
It seems these conflicting assessments will inform an internal DUP debate as to whether all their terms must be met before a decision to enter government with Sinn Féin, or whether the vexed question of policing might be better pushed into the long grass.
However, the DUP’s calculations will be further complicated by the view of some senior figures that – even if the right terms can be had – the passage of time and change of personnel would make it easier for people (that is unionists) to see what emerges as being “different” from the Belfast Agreement.
As one of their number puts it (emphatically off the record): “It really might be better to break with all the paraphernalia, baggage and spin of Blair.”
Irish negotiators would find this a highly superficial approach, while Blair’s admirers might think it poor reward for his labours. But in the harsh world of politics the DUP – kept in the cold while Trimble and the UUP prevailed – might figure they owe him nothing.
And if the “anybody but Blair” tendency prevails, then it might be the wrong prime minister travelling to Scotland next month.