Does Tony Blair really offer the last chance (at least
for more years than we dare risk) of a political
settlement in Northern Ireland? Or whisper it gently
might the departing British Prime Minister actually
now pose an obstacle to the DUP/Sinn Féin deal he and
Taoiseach Bertie Ahern insist must be in place by
their 24 November deadline?
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 President Bill Clinton (not to mention the
arrival of President Bush) might have seemed more than
the process could bear. Yet it proved otherwise. With
equal regret and realism, Sinn Féin had likewise to
rationalise the fall of the once-pivotal Albert
Reynolds. Many informed outsiders greeted the end of
John Hume's career, the eclipse of the SDLP and Sinn
Féin's ascendancy in the North as a necessary
sacrifice for the greater cause of peace.
The suspicion remains widespread, meanwhile, that the
republican movement deliberately engineered the
political death of David Trimble and the collapse of
the Ulster Unionist Party. Similarly pragmatic
officials in London and Dublin greeted the emergence
of the DUP as majority unionist party as a predictable
(indeed probably inevitable) step toward securing an
agreement that would finally stick. And while Blair
and Ahern pray Dr 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 Secretary of State 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 Dr Paisley and the DUP do not deliver
this autumn - "because the world will move on." Mr
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 hasn't got the point, Northern Ireland
Office minister David Hanson suggests the consequences
of not taking it could be "dire".
Mr Hanson's warning is as over-the-top and
counter-productive as Minister Dermot Ahern's
assertion that refusal to share power now will see
Northern Ireland's politicians reduced to a world of
That said, Minister Ahern and Mr Hain are clearly
right to question whether any other two leaders would
bring the personal commitment with which the Taoiseach
and British Prime Minister have sustained this
process. Respected insiders say Bertie Ahern is a
brilliant negotiator who never leaves a meeting
without preserving, if not enhancing, the process,
even in times of difficulty. And while many mocked,
nationalist Ireland in particular had cause to
celebrate Mr Blair's determined relationship with "the
hand of history". Certainly nobody in Dublin expected
such a consistent hands-on approach from Mr Blair,
even as they eagerly awaited the ejection of the Major
government and his arrival in Downing Street in 1997.
Despite his own high hopes of serving as deputy Labour
leader in a Gordon Brown administration, however, Mr
Hain makes plain we cannot expect the same order of
priorities as a new regime seeks to renew itself in
office ahead of the next British general election.
Nor should we conclude this for reasons to be deduced
from the virulent attacks seeking to make Mr Brown's
character an issue in the upcoming leadership contest.
Indeed some might think the Chancellor's alleged
failings as a socially dysfunctional, uncollegiate
control freak, easily bored, unwilling to schmooze and
intolerant of people who disagree with him might
find him rather at home among politicians on all sides
in the North.
Three rather more serious points are made by people
with an inside track in Whitehall. First that, despite
his determination to extend his Treasury control over
almost every government department, Mr Brown has shown
little interest in Northern Ireland. Second, that Mr
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.
DUP chief whip Nigel Dodds is one of many who
dismisses the anti-Brown line and thinks it "more
driven by the need to get some kind of legacy for Tony
than anything else." Once installed in Number 10,
Dodds predicts "Brown will be interested in all the
things a prime minister has to be interested in."
Even if the interest is of a different order, many
others think it would be no bad thing for a new prime
minister to revert to traditional mode and let his
Secretary of State carry the burden. Indeed 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 24 November 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 which might be added the further thought that if
there is no agreement in November any resultant
interregnum can hardly be blamed on Prime Minister
Brown (if indeed he does succeed), since that it is
the outcome pre-ordained by Mr Blair and the
What neither of them yet know 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 its 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 Mr 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 to owe him nothing.
And if the "anybody but Blair" tendency prevails, then
it might be the wrong prime minister travelling to
Scotland next month.