Peter Mandelson’s not wrong, but wasn’t Blair right?

As Fair Deal notes below, Peter Mandelson’s been stirring the Northern Irish pot (selective recording here) You’d have to wonder why. And have the reasons anything to do with us, or the impending succession across the water – Ciaran has some interesting background thoughts, and good links. In the Guardian today he says of his old friend, Prime Minister Tony Blair:

“In order to keep the process in motion [Tony] would be sort of dangling carrots and possibilities in front of the republicans which I thought could never be delivered, that it was unreasonable and irresponsible to intimate that you could when you knew that you couldn’t. There was a lot to be said for paying a price to keep the bicycle moving. The issue is whether Tony Blair paid too big a price.”

He later (clearly resentfully) dispenses with public fiction that Adams and McGuinness had no responsibility within the IRA during this period:

“When Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness entered the room you were expected to stand up. They were senior military, they were top brass. Apart from being leaders of Sinn Féin they were leaders of the military council.”

Unsurprisingly, in a follow up to the interview the Guardian discovered that whilst Trimble liked Mandy, Paul Bew understood him, Martin McGuinness clearly didn’t do either (‘I had to tell him to stop behaving like an ass’). Sinn Fein missed their warm relations with Mo Mowlem as much as they resented Mandelson’s ‘understanding’ of Unionist difficulties with a process that seemed to play fast and loose with the rule of law.

Peter R Neumann recently captured the Blair government’s strategy in an article for Foreign Affairs magazine. In it he describes a two track strategy for negotiations with ‘terrorists’, clearly drawn from the British experience of the Peace Process. The twin tracks consist of two types of concessions: primary, ie those relating to the political demands of the ‘terrorist’, and ultimately the working of the state; and secondary, those relating to their personal fate. He demonstrates how it works:

Terrorists seeking primary concessions aim to alter the political arrangements under which the state operates, and no self respecting democracy can allow a small group of once violent conspirators to impose constitutional change, even after it has renounced violence. On the other hand, terrorists will have little incentive to engage in negotiations unless they feel constitutional change is at least a possibility.

The only way to resolve this tension is to grant primary concessions only in the context of a broader settlement involving all the major parties – and in which the terrorists participate on the basis of a democratic mandate – so that the concessions become a part of the polity’s will.

There is little doubt that the participation of terrorists within ‘a broad, multi party process’ caused huge resentment amongst those who had rigorously kept by democratic rules throughout the conflict. It raises seemingly unanswerable questions, for instance, about the extent of the IRA’s treasury or how much has been received, kept, managed, and disbursed during the period of the Peace Process™. Or indeed how it may have unfairly influenced the outcome of past (and recent) elections.

Undoubtedly, as Neumann notes, such “an apprenticeship in democracy can be an invaluable means of easing the transition from violence to conventional politics”. Sinn Fein is a far cry from the party it was at the birth of the ‘armalite and ballot box‘ strategy in 1981. In that same year Adams’ words to the Guardian on the murder of 86 year old retired Unionist politician, Sir Norman Stronge and his son: “The only complaint I have heard from nationalists or anti-unionists is that he was not shot 40 years ago.”

And yet Adams, in contrast to the mangled prose with which he met the murder of Robert McCartney two years ago, greeted the news yesterday morning of two bodies discovered in Belfast, one shot, the other (according to the latest information possibly battered to death with a shovel), by telling people they should report anything they know to the Police.

This Peace Process has not been pretty in its detail, and the price may still be considered too high by posterity for a dowry (not least for the many individuals whose lives have been sidelined for the sake of the integrity of the process) to bring about the marriage of the oddest of Ulster’s odd couples.

But we are finally entering the endgame, and Blair’s strategy appears to have worked.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty

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