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Sunday 28 August 2005

Hain, the epitome of a 'celver-silly' politician

I RANG the Northern Ireland Office on Thursday to enquire as to the whereabouts of Peter Hain, the Secretary of State, who seemed strangely silent at a time when loyalists, whose ceasefire he recognises, are killing, terrorising and intimidating with apparent impunity.

My interlocutor was vague. He might be on holiday: I would be phoned back. And I duly was with the news that the Secretary of State was indeed on holiday, but it was not clear when he had gone or when he would return. It doesn't say a lot for Hain that he's made so little impact on officials.

Everyone was bewildered when Hain was appointed Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, not least the minister himself. One minute this Blair loyalist was in the influential role of Leader of the Commons (with the non-job of SOS for Wales on the side), hoping he might be promoted to Foreign Secretary, the next he was cast to the Celtic fringes, doomed to roam between Belfast and Cardiff engaged in activities that excite no interest whatsoever in Westminster.

Northern-Ireland watchers got to work on the press clippings and read Hain's appointment as a decisive tilt towards nationalism.

The truth, I suspect, was much more prosaic. Owing to a series of mutinies, Tony Blair had ended up with a plethora of round pegs; Hain was one that got jammed forcibly into a square hole.

Still, as some commentators pointed out, Hain had form on Northern Ireland. Had he not been a prominent member of the Troops Out movement in the Seventies? In fact, though this seems to have been missed, Hain was still banging that particular drum as late as 1988, when - as a trade union official in search of a Labour seat - he told a 'Time to Go' conference in London that the argument that there would be a bloodbath if Britain left Northern Ireland was "a unionist bluff that has to be called".

People change, and New Labour has changed faster than most. As late as 1995, Hain was denouncing the EU as a conspiracy of corporatists and bureaucrats, yet by 2000, as Europe minister, he had become an enthusiastic supporter of the euro.

Yet on Ireland Hain's instincts are viscerally anti-unionist, not least because of the burden of guilt he developed as a child about his South African settler heritage. Since he became Secretary of State he has been parroting idiotic comparisons with South Africa of a kind that were discredited years ago.

And in the United States in July, he sucked up to Irish-Americans by speaking of Britain's "nefarious" role in Ireland and talking of the "integrity" of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness.

One of Hain's problems is that he is not as clever as he thinks he is. He is, indeed the epitome of the "clever-silly" politicians who often get things disastrously wrong.

In the late Sixties, apropos Harold Wilson's Labour government, Harold Macmillan described that breed to ex-President Eisenhower: "We have a Government of very clever people - far cleverer than I or my Government [were] - who are at the same time curiously stupid."

People like that don't value humility or wisdom. There's nothing about Hain that suggests he knows how little he really knows about Northern Ireland. Still, the most important thing about Hain is that he is a classic New Labourapparatchik.

Although the startling perma-tan and love of publicity remain, the principled young man who earned fame asa noisy anti-apartheidcampaigner in the Seventies is no more.

At 55, Hain has turned into Blair's canary, frequently sent to try out in the media ideas that the Dear Leader is mulling over. The only non-Blairite part of his body is his left eye, permanently looking over his shoulder to see if he should jump ship to Gordon Brown.

"I will take a very direct, leading role in this alongside the Prime Minister," said Hain in May, "and we will work together in partnership". What this means in practice is that - depending on what Blair wants - just as he locked up Sean Kelly and then let him out, Hain will lock up the republican leadership or sell out the unionists.

It also means he will have no qualms about implementing any shabby deals that Tony Blair - frantic to get Northern Ireland out of his hair - has made behind the scenes.

Hain has already enthusiastically set about dismantling much of the security apparatus without waiting for any IRA decommissioning whatsoever.

On the Prime Minister's nod, he will oversee with equanimity the return of On-The-Runs, and he is unlikely to complain if told to introduce legislation to wipe clean the criminal records of convicted terrorists.

The SDLP, the UUP and the DUP are terrified that Downing Street is about to cave in to demands to allow ex-prisoners to become what are euphemistically known as "community policemen" - which would further Balkanise Northern Ireland.

"Could you imagine Sean Kelly or Johnny Adair becoming community policemen?" asked Jeffrey Donaldson.

If this happens - and it could - expect Hain to provide more fatuous comparisons with the ANC.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

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