Eamonn McCann dissents from the glowing reviews, here and elsewhere that Blair’s policy on Northern Ireland was that of a gifted visionary. He argues that he gave in early on to requirement of seeing everything in terms of the sectarian divide. The institutions he helped set up, he argues “suffer from a congenital sectarian infection”.By Eamonn McCann
Ask not what Tony Blair has done for Northern Ireland, but what Northern Ireland has done for Tony Blair. As he sets out on the longest lap of honour in political history, Blair can comfort himself with the thought that there is one place at least on the face of the planet where his crimes against humanity are not held against him.
He arrived at Stormont last Tuesday, steeped in the blood of Iraq, Palestine, Afghanistan, to be greeted on (almost) all sides with bouquets of praise, as a Man of Peace. Even if it were true that Blair had played a key role in bringing peace to the North, the accolades now being heaped upon him would be, at best, inappropriate. Like applauding a man who’d raped a child up a back alley for tossing her sister a sweet as he makes his getaway.
This observation will itself be deemed inappropriate by those who don’t see the people of Iraq, Palestine, Afghanistan etc. as flesh of our flesh and blood of our blood but as other sort of beings entirely, with none of the entitlements which we have to dignity and rights. The role in the peace process ascribed to Blair has, anyway, been exaggerated beyond any resemblance to accuracy—particularly by constitutional Nationalists. On Tuesday, only Ian Paisley had the hard neck to tell the truth. Or to come within touching distance of the truth.
“Tony Blair leaves a priceless legacy of peace and agreement in Ireland. I am privileged to have worked side by side with him,” gushed Bertie Ahern. “The restoration of the political institutions would not have been possible without him,” simpered Gerry Adams. “I want to extend best wishes to him, his wife Cherie and their family for the future”.
“He deserves immense credit for his perseverance in our process…The amount of time and personal capital he invested should never be underestimated,” suggested Mark Durkan, leader of a party which was consistently belittled and sidelined by Blair throughout the process.
Paisley, however, before going on to join in the trite chorus, argued briefly that, over the past 10 years, Blair “may have delayed the progress that has been achieved recently.” What the DUP boss had in mind was Blair’s alleged tendency to concede too readily to Nationalist demands— a typically unbalanced verdict. But Paisley’s basic point, that Blair’s involvement had delayed the deal, deserves consideration.
The mendacity and messing of the entire New Labour crew, the fact that they didn’t have a single fixed principle between them, and the realisation on all sides within months of their arrival that their word wasn’t worth its weight in dirt, was a significant factor in setting the scene for a decade of bad-tempered bluff and procrastination.
Blair, throughout, refused to contemplate any perspective other than that which allocated every citizen of the North automatically to either the Catholic-Nationalist or Protestant-Unionist camps. Of all the regimes which have ruled the six counties since partition, Blair’s has been the most determinedly sectarian. True, it’s been a balanced sort of sectarianism when compared with the dreadnought years of Ulster Unionism. But sectarianism nonetheless.
The arrangements for governance now in place thus suffer from a congenital sectarian infection. This may be Blair’s most enduring legacy in the North—that a widespread and deep-seated yearning for an end to sectarian conflict has been channelled along communal lines, any potential for expression which transcended communalism systematically stamped on and snuffed out.
The Northern peace process has, from the outset, been driven from below, not imposed from above, to an extent which conventional commentary balks at acknowledging. In opting eventually to search for a settlement, local leaders were adapting to the wishes of the communities they wanted to lead, not dragging a people habituated to violence along a reluctant path towards peace.
All of the accolades, and more, which have been heaped on Blair in the past week belong properly to the plain people of the North. In a decent society Blair would be in a dank cell with the key thrown away and the voices of unnumbered dead keening endlessly in his ears.
Instead, he swanks into town in bright sunshine, manic grin affixed to his face, to the sound of politicians and commentators in the grip of abject enthusiasm, shouting hosannas. In the fullness of time, some at least of those who have participated in these events will feel, we may hope, a saving embarrassment.
This has been Northern Ireland’s Princess Di moment, Tony Blair’s “People’s Process.”
First published in the Sunday edition of the Derry Journal.