Yet the myth of New Labour's great Northern Ireland triumph persists
Of all the Government’s policies, perhaps none has come in for such determined criticism as its approach to Northern Ireland.
Whenever the Protocol comes up, a veritable Greek chorus of men from the Nineties — Sir John Major and Tony Blair, Alastair Campbell and Jonathan Powell — lurch out of the history books to lambast Boris Johnson for taking a wrecking ball to their great legacy.
Like what you’re reading? Get the free UnHerd daily email
Already registered? Sign in
There is no denying that securing the ceasefire in Northern Ireland was a major accomplishment. But the myth-making around the Belfast (‘Good Friday’) Agreement goes much further than that.
For many of these men, it is their last great hope of a place in the history books, one of the “pillars of Blairism” not yet crumbled like our EU membership and support for liberal wars in the Middle East.
Thus the history of the Agreement must be endlessly laundered into a narrative of successful statesmanship, broken only by Brexit.
Yet this claim does not stand up to serious scrutiny, and this fact is amply illustrated by the latest intervention by the latest of these eminences grises, Peter Hain.
The former Northern Irish Secretary thunders in the Guardian that “I negotiated a Northern Ireland deal that worked. Johnson’s Putinesque strategy will wreck it”.
Whatever you think of the Prime Minister’s current strategy with regard to Ulster (if indeed he really has one) the first part of Hain’s claim is total nonsense.
The deal he brokered was the 2007 St Andrews Agreement, and its principal effect has been to strangle Northern Ireland’s moderate parties and cement the grip of the hard-liners in the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein.
Basically, having overtaken the Ulster Unionists and SDLP, they held the devolved Executive to ransom until Westminster — that is, Hain — rigged the system for nominating the First Minister and Deputy First Minister in their favour.
This is the familiar pattern trodden by most Northern Ireland secretaries since 1998: the local parties topple Stormont, they fly out to Belfast, hand out a few bribes, bank a few headlines, and fly off again.
The Conservatives do it too: Julian Smith was lauded by the usual suspects during his brief stint in the Northern Irish brief, but the Department is still grappling with his at least partially undeliverable ‘New Decade, New Approach’ deal.
Nobody holds them to account for the cumulative impact of all these short-sighted decisions on the quality of government in Ulster, which is dire. Nor do they dwell on the fact that the structures set up in 1998 have turned the Province’s politics into a sort of frozen conflict, with elections still not fought on ‘normal’ social or economic platforms a quarter-century on.
The ceasefire remains an important achievement. But the truth is, nobody looking at the Northern Ireland of 2022 — or even 2016 — would think the Belfast Agreement had fulfilled the original hopes of most of those who negotiated it.
Nothing would disappoint them more than learning that the UUP and SDLP had been supplanted by the DUP and Sinn Fein. And we have Hain, and his vaunted deal, to thank for that.