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16 December 2006

At last Hain will be found out

There was murky collusion aplenty between states and paramilitaries during the Irish Troubles.

There are signs of life among us Northern Ireland Watchers (NIWs). Greyed and wrinkled after years of service, over the past 18 months we have either slumped into near-catatonia or have transferred our attention to wondering what’s to be done about our little Islamist chums.

Mr Justice Girvin, who - if there is any justice - will be Peter Hain’s nemesis, has woken us up. Ruling on a legal challenge to Hain’s appointment last year of an estimable Royal Ulster Constabulary widow as Victims’ Commissioner (at the behest, as many people suspected, of the Democratic Unionist Party), he accused the minister of ‘improper political motive’ in flouting the structures painfully designed over years by successive ministers and civil servants to ensure fairness in public appointments. Infuriated by Northern Ireland Office attempts to cover up, the judge said Mr Hain had ‘failed in his duty of candour to the court’ and - with the help of two senior civil servants - had sought ‘to divert attention from the true course of events’.

Girvin requested the Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, to inquire into whether the three had sought to pervert the course of justice. Hoping this would pass Westminster by, Hain tried the line that he had acted disinterestedly for the sake of victims, and then, to distract attention, strengthened his campaign for the deputy leadership by launching an attack on President Putin and the ‘murky murders’ with which he was associated. (It was not lost on the NIWs that although everyone knew that the IRA was responsible for the murder of the informer Denis Donaldson last April, it suited Hain for political reasons to declare its leadership clean.) The appointment of the Whitehall-savvy Peter Scott QC to conduct a restricted inquiry has caused little excitement in Westminster.

Republicans rightly call their secretaries of state ‘proconsuls’, for they are powerful, yet electorally unaccountable. Still, they are under more day-to-day scrutiny than most Cabinet members: the NIW microscopes can quickly reveal virtues and vices which are missed on the mainland. Lack of principle is a frequent characteristic of the quick-fixers who try to make deals in Northern Ireland, but what has staggered many is that Hain has shown an arrogance and contempt for the law that would have horrified any unionist prime minister of an unreformed Northern Ireland.

Of the five New Labour secretaries of state, pin-up populist Mo Mowlam did a terrible job, not just because she had no sense of history and ignored the details of her brief, but because she was at heart a hippy who was antipathetic towards uniforms, stuffiness, the God-fearing and the law-abiding. Yet her party and the country thought she was a triumph who was axed by a jealous Blair.

The spinners’ spinner, Peter Mandelson, confounded preconceptions with his genuine empathy with victims of terrorism. Long after his resignation he continued to give money, time and effort to those pursuing a civil case against the Omagh bombers. (Hain, by contrast, distinguished himself by falling asleep during a meeting with a bereaved father.) No surprises with the others: John Reid was a capable and articulate bully and Paul Murphy a safe pair of hands. But Hain - and what one journalist calls his ‘brazen self-serving’ - is a revelation.

Given his South African background and his troops-out history, it was assumed he would be instinctively pro-nationalist, yet it was quickly clear that what drove him were the orders of his present and future masters and personal ambition: flouting honour, sense, morality - and now, it emerges, the law - he has been on a three-pronged crusade. In a miasma of zealotry, he is in search of a legacy for Tony Blair, substantial cost-cutting for Gordon Brown and the Labour deputy leadership for himself.

As a result of the British and Irish governments' policy of appeasing the extremes, in the 2005 election the political centre was almost destroyed: Hain's instructions from Blair and Jonathan Powell were to shake everything up, woo the unwooable and do whatever it took to get Paisley's DUP and Sinn Fein to do a deal. His strategy was to operate through political bribery and threats and from the beginning his motto was 'Bugger the means; I'm interested in the ends'.

A major tactic has been to push for drastic, ill-thought-out and contentious revenue-raising in areas like local government, education, water rates and property taxation, while offering the bribe that a devolved government could reverse or amend the decisions. A photo-opportunity with Gordon Brown (which helped boost Hain's campaign to be deputy leader) backfired in Northern Ireland when it emerged that the projected £50 billion Hain described as 'an extraordinary boost for a future power-sharing administration' contained no new money.

Sean Kelly, the Shankill bomber, was returned to jail on a vague pretext to please the DUP and released a month later on no pretext as a sweetener to achieve IRA disarmament. Other typical bribes were to gratify the DUP by putting two Orangemen on the parades commission without corresponding representation from residents' groups (a legal challenge now with the Lords) while promising Sinn Fein that the site of the Maze prison - 16 miles from Belfast - would be turned into a sports stadium cum terrorist shrine. He assured the DUP that there would be no amnesty or 'other procedure' to allow IRA fugitives to return home, while letting Irish America know that the government was 'committed to addressing' the issue.

Far more serious and indicative of this colonial governor's lack of concern for the well-being of the natives was when he announced the replacement of 26 district councils by seven super councils, rather than the 15 wanted by public and academic opinion and all parties other than Sinn Fein: three will be orange and three green, thus encouraging a sectarian carve-up in an increasingly segregated society.

In a Lords debate last month Lord Smith of Clifton reflected the view of many when he said, "This wretched [St Andrews agreement] Bill comprises the wish list of DUP demands and a corresponding Sinn Fein wish list. Where the two conflict, it is either silent or offers a fudge." In fact, the Bill is geared to facilitate what the DUP and Sinn Fein secretly agree on: that they want to split power, not share it.

Mark Durkan, the SDLP leader, emulated a couple of Welsh MPs who have tried vainly to bring the Girvin judgment to wider attention, when at Northern Ireland Questions on 22 November he asked, "In the Secretary of State's opinion, would it be a breach of the commitment in the new pledge of office to uphold the rule of law, including support for the courts, if a minister were deemed to have misled a court, if a senior civil servant were deemed to have misled a court in an affidavit seen and approved by a minister, or if a minister misrepresented a court when it clearly found against him on a key matter?"

"I have no idea what the honourable gentleman is referring to," said Hain, consistent to the last in failing in his duty of candour.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards