Watching last week’s BBC2 programme on the early days of Tony Blair’s premiership was to be reminded of the power for good that lies in the hands of politicians when they care enough to use it, writes BRIAN WILSON
The focus was on Blair’s messianic commitment to unlocking a peace deal for Northern Ireland. In the face of all warnings of impossibility, he stuck with the task, abetted by Mo Mowlam as the Secretary of State with a human touch.
It is easily forgotten the risks Tony Blair took in doing business with people who had a great deal of blood on their hands. When he arrived in Belfast for the final round of talks, 87 per cent of the local population believed they would fail. Three days later, the Good Friday Agreement emerged.
The deal was not perfect and neither have been the outcomes. But overwhelmingly the most significant point was made by Tom Kelly, then head of communications in the Northern Ireland Office, who said peace was only secured because Blair “kept at it, kept at it and kept at it” and forced others to do the same.
“That,” he said, “is why 20 years after the Agreement, the framework it established – despite all the difficulties – is still there and it is why my children grew up in a world I didn’t know”. It was a powerful testimony.
Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Democrat editor Bill Heaney interviewing Blair.
Fast forward several Prime Ministers and consider what is happening now in Northern Ireland. Everyone with an ounce of humanity hopes and prays that peace is sufficiently embedded to avoid a return to past horrors. But the reckless willingness to gamble with that risk is morally degraded.
Hearken unto Ian Paisley Jnr, a DUP MP and bearer of a powerful name. According to Paisley: “Boris Johnson did tell me personally that he would, after agreeing to the protocol, he would sign up to changing that protocol and indeed tearing it up, that this was just for the semantics”. It may be an incoherent sentence but the meaning is clear.
It is in line with the boast from Dominic Cummings that Tory strategy was to sign a Brexit deal, win a General Election on the back of it and then “ditch’ the bits they didn’t like – including the Northern Ireland Protocol which, according to Cummings, Johnson “never read” far less understood.
That is how much the Conservative and Unionist Party cared about the implications for Northern Ireland – sign a treaty in bad faith, win an election, then deny the validity of the treaty. And for good measure, claim to do so in order to preserve peace in Northern Ireland. It is politics of the deepest cynicism and lowest order.
I remember writing in the early Brexit days that Northern Ireland was bound to be the tail that wagged the dog because the starting point must be that there could be no hard border within the island of Ireland while Unionists would never accept a border in the Irish Sea. Therefore, a Customs Union covering the whole UK-EU relationship was inevitable. How naïve I was.
Theresa May’s premiership foundered on the rock of honest efforts to resolve that enigma. They were frustrated by a motley alliance of hard-line Tories, manoeuvring to get Johnson installed, supported in the division lobbies by deluded Labour and cynical SNP MPs pretending they were somehow going to blow Brexit away. Instead, they blew Johnson into power – exactly as he had calculated.
None of them gave a toss for Northern Ireland nor that hard-won peace which were merely pawns in their games. Now we have David Frost, an undistinguished former director-general of the Scotch Whisky Association and long-time Johnson crony, talking about “our fundamental responsibility to safeguard peace and prosperity” in Northern Ireland – by reneging on every word of the Protocol.
The hypocrisy is shameless while responsibility extends to every MP who, by his or her actions – often in direct contradiction of words – put destructive power into the hands of Johnson, Frost and their fellow villains. Who will ever again trust a Treaty they sign – and why on earth should they?
CLEANSING WORKERS RIGHT TO REMIND US OF ANOTHER ENVIRONMENTAL CRISIS
“We’ve got a civic pride and a civic duty to look after this city. We want to showcase to the world how beautiful it is”.
Timely words on radio yesterday from the GMB union convener for the cleansing department of Glasgow City Council, Chris Mitchell. If only the city had political leadership with such passion and commitment!
Instead, it has an SNP-run council which acquiesces in swingeing cuts imposed by their political allies and now the rats are coming home to roost with a threatened strike by cleansing workers.
As Mr Mitchell pointed out, they too are in favour of a sustainable, greener future – while acutely aware that Glasgow City Council “have an environmental emergency on their doorstep” created by years of “mass cuts within the cleansing budget”.
Mr Mitchell explained the long-running nature of the dispute which is not, as the Scottsh Government claimed, solely between COSLA – a useful shield – and unions. There are also Glasgow-specific factors.
Neither is it something cooked up for COP26 – though the workers could hardly be blamed for using a bit of leverage to press their case. It sounded as if a £500 pandemic bonus consolidated into the wage agreement might do the trick. Pay up, I say.
“There are places in the UK which ring-fence their cleansing budget,” said Mr Mitchell, “because they take pride in their cities”. That’s an idea worth considering for any authority that values its own environment.
Cleansing is a cinderella service but it is one on which society is hugely reliant. The Glasgow cleansing workers have done us all a favour by getting that message across.