Whatever else a Labour government under Tony Blair may or may not do, it already seems determined to repeat the mistakes every administration, Labour and Conservative, has made in Ireland since the 1960s. As with much of the rest of New Labour policy, few of the specifics are available—Ireland was not even debated at the party conference at Blackpool—but the tokens are, unmistakably, not good. The friendly noises Labour has been making to the Ulster Unionists may owe something to electoral considerations—party strategists undoubtedly have in mind the potential importance of Unionist parliamentary representation should the expected Blair victory at the general election produce either a small Labour majority or a minority government. The idea that there is a cold-hearted numbers game going on could be interpreted as indicating that Labour’s association with the Unionists is little more than a flirtation of convenience, and that should the Labour majority be sizeable enough, a Blair government would be in a position to withstand Unionist pressure and pursue the policies of its choice.
However, the numbers argument is not the full story. The leadership’s thinking on Ireland has, like everything else, been affected by the Blairite reconfiguration of ideology, priorities and personnel. ‘Unification by consent’, the formula developed during the 1980s and associated primarily with Kevin McNamara, the former spokesperson on Ireland, remains the (platitudinous enough) official line. But only just. Since McNamara’s replacement by Mo Mowlam the emphasis has increasingly shifted away from unification towards consent. ‘Consent’ in a properly functioning democracy is entirely reasonable. In the north of Ireland where a large minority is at odds with a state it perceives as having been established and run exclusively in the interests of the majority, ‘consent’ is the recognition of the Unionists’ right to veto changes they do not like—that is, any and all change. Simultaneously, the Labour front bench has endorsed whatever line the Major government opts to lay down. Earlier this year, for example, in a rare show of solidarity with the Tories, Labour reversed its long opposition to the renewal of the Prevention of Terrorism Act, and it stayed silent during Michael Howard’s show of getting tough with the ira when, shortly before Easter, the Home Secretary extended certain provisions of the emergency legislation. Likewise, just before the party conference, Blair and Mowlam made their own unwholesome display of getting tough, this time with Jeremy Corbyn, mp for Islington North, who had invited Gerry Adams to a press conference at the House of Commons.
Miserable enough as these derelictions were—and cynical enough, for they also had the unpleasant whiff of electoral calculation—they pale into insignificance compared with the massive failure to challenge John Major and Sir Patrick Mayhew on their handling of the peace process. About twelve months ago, as the ira ceasefire entered its second year, it was becoming increasingly apparent that lack of movement on the key nationalist demand for all-party talks, together with the unwavering British insistence on the ‘decommissioning’ of ira weapons, was undermining Sinn Fein’s ability to persuade the ira to maintain its cessation. Yet during this period Blair and Mowlam uttered not one word of criticism against the Government—a failure which undoubtedly encouraged Major and Mayhew to persist in their mismanagement of the growing crisis. They colluded in Major’s dubious finessing of the Mitchell report when the Prime Minister—with patent dishonesty—sought to create the impression that Mitchell had recommended elections as a way to move forward the stalled peace process. In fact, Mitchell suggested that ‘an elective process could contribute to the building of confidence’ but only ‘if it were broadly acceptable’. Blair and Mowlam must have known that it wasn’t. Perhaps they feared that to take a critical stand on these issues would tarnish Labour with the Republican brush. If so, they were being unnecessarily squeamish, for among those who were at that time desperately urging the British to stop stalling and set a date for all-party talks were Labour’s long-standing ally, John Hume, and the Irish Taoiseach, John Bruton. By ignoring the calls from the nationalist side, Blair and Mowlam left themselves only one option: to follow the Prime Minister and his Secretary of State into the hole from which they have yet to dig themselves and the peace process.
While the Labour leadership was aligning itself with Tory policy on security and the ceasefire, Mo Mowlam was embarking on a charm offensive with Unionists and Loyalists. During one public meeting of the Ulster Unionist Party, Mowlam allowed herself to be photographed surrounded by Union Jacks. In the north of Ireland, where flags and symbols have profound resonances, the resulting images had a predictable impact on nationalist opinion and were interpreted as sending out deliberate signals about her and her party’s future intentions. Nor have Mowlam’s contacts been confined to representatives of what are commonly called the ‘constitutional parties’. She recently visited convicted Loyalist prisoners in Long Kesh, including the notorious sectarian assassin Michael Stone, convicted on several counts of murder after attacking a Republican funeral in Milltown cemetery in 1988. Mowlam saw the prisoners to discuss the prospects for the Loyalists’ increasingly shaky ceasefire. In itself, this initiative is hard to criticize: anything that can be done to keep Loyalists from touring the streets of Belfast and Portadown looking for Catholics to kill is more than worthwhile. It has to be noted, however, that Mowlam’s enterprise on this occasion was not matched this time last year as the first warnings surfaced about the state of the ira’s own ceasefire.
But undoubtedly the most telling evidence of New Labour’s warming towards Ulster Unionism was the presence of David Trimble at Blackpool—the first time anyone can recall a leader of a Unionist party attending
Or, if the pictures are not enough, there are the newspaper reports of the private meeting held behind the barricades between Trimble—the man whose public position is that it is wrong to talk to those who have committed acts of political violence—and the Loyalist ex-prisoner Billy Wright, dubbed ‘King Rat’ in honour of his reputation as a sectarian killer in the mid-Ulster region (Wright later received death threats from the uvf, from which he was expelled, after he announced his opposition to a continuation of the Loyalist ceasefire). Or there is Hansard, which records attack after attack on Trimble and his role at Drumcree. True, Sir David Steel did not identify the villain when he rose to his feet, but the name was no secret: ‘We in this House are entitled to expect fellow parliamentarians who describe themselves as Loyalists to show a higher standard of leadership than we saw during last week—higher leadership than saying simply “there is a crowd, I must follow it.”’ Even Unionist-friendly Michael Mates felt roused to indignation: ‘Those who have come to this House from time to time urging that the law be not broken owe it to us as well to ensure that they do not disobey laws of which they may disapprove, and that defiance of law and the police forces trying to enforce the law is equally unacceptable from whichever side of the community it comes.’ Significantly, as the quotations suggest, the harshest judgements were delivered from the Tory and Liberal Democrat benches. The most withering denunciation to come from the other side was from an Old Labour oppositionist. Roy Hattersley, writing in his column in the Guardian, denounced Trimble for being on the wrong side of the barricades, for his failure to condemn Loyalist plans to bulldoze the police lines, and for not speaking out against what Paddy Ashdown described as ‘ethnic cleansing—the forcible removal of Catholic families from the so-called Protestant areas.’ In view of all this, it seems an obvious and unedifying case of double standards that Blair and Mowlam should have threatened Jeremy Corbyn for inviting Gerry Adams to the House of Commons while they invited David Trimble to Blackpool.
Sinn Fein has been watching these developments with understandable interest. Having written off the prospect of any movement on the peace process under John Major, Republicans some time ago concluded that nothing would happen before the next election. Not that they have ever