Boris Johnson, Theresa May and David Cameron must accept part of the responsibility for the continuing “gridlock” of politics in Northern Ireland, through their failure to engage in the political process here, argues former Labour secretary of state Peter Hain. He also allocates blame to Conservative secretaries of state, with the exception of Julian Smith.
Hain says that prime ministers must recognise that their role includes strong engagement with the Northern Ireland parties, in order to keep political progress on track. “You have to be hands-on,” he says of the PMs and secretaries of state. “I think David Cameron and his successors made a basic error in thinking that the job was done when they took office in 2010. And he did not – nor did Theresa May and certainly not Boris Johnson – have the constant focus that Northern Ireland needs, building relationships with all the key political leaders and others, and being there – not on a fly in, fly out basis, or the odd Zoom call for half an hour here and there – but actually constantly engaged.”
He adds that the “unravelling of Stormont” and the crisis over the Northern Ireland Protocol have been the “result” of what he terms the “neglect” by those prime ministers and their secretaries of state. He adds that the UK government must act as the “honest broker” when it comes to Northern Ireland, “but that hasn’t been the case” because of the Conservatives’ relationship with unionism, especially the DUP. “The government aligned itself with one side of the divide,” he continues.
Hain is equally critical of the DUP, and especially the leadership of Arlene Foster, in not moving society and politics forward in recent years. “She didn’t seem to have the ability, or self-confidence, or the leadership calibre to actually lead from the front, and not always do her party’s bidding in a kind of lapdog fashion.”
He adds that Northern Ireland’s politics require leaders who will “lead from the front”, and believes that Jeffrey Donaldson may have that skill and capacity. Hain hopes that Jeffrey Donaldson will prove to be a leader who can take the political process forward, rather than backwards. He calls on the DUP to see Sinn Fein as partners in government, “rather than the devil incarnate”. It is possible to work together, without the two parties liking each other, he stresses.
“Northern Ireland’s political leaders have to decide if they are focused on the future, or trapped by the past,” says Hain. In the interview he also discusses how to make cross-party progress on the reform of the health and education systems, and the role of citizens’ assemblies in creating a strong voice for civic society in Northern Ireland.
The interview with Peter Hain can be heard here. It is the 18th and final episode in the third series of Holywell Trust Forward Together podcasts. This follows interviews with the leaders of the five political parties in government in Northern Ireland; Simon Hoare MP, who is chair of the House of Commons Northern Ireland Affairs Committee; and sector experts, who have assessed the need for reform of our public services. All the past podcasts are available on the Holywell Trust website.
The Holywell Trust Forward Together podcasts are funded by the Community Relations Council’s Media Grant Scheme.
Disclaimer: This project has received support from the Northern Ireland Community Relations Council which aims to promote a pluralist society characterised by equity, respect for diversity, and recognition of interdependence. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the Community Relations Council.
Paul Gosling is editor of ‘Lessons from the Troubles and an Unsettled Peace’, author of ‘A New Ireland’ and ‘The Fall of the Ethical Bank’ and co-author of ‘Abuse of Trust’, the story of a child abuse scandal in Leicestershire. He is engaged by the Holywell Trust charity on peace and reconciliation projects.