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23 June 2014

Disdainful Peter Hain won't be missed when he's gone

Peter Hain
Peter Hain

Peter Hain is clearly aggrieved about the rough time he had at the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee about on-the-run (OTR) letters. Among other challenges that offended him were Lady (Sylvia) Hermon's suggestion that he had gone behind Parliament's back and Ian Paisley jnr accusing him of "inadvertently perjuring" himself by telling the judge who released John Downey, the Hyde Park bombing suspect, that he had become aware of the case only when approached by Downey's solicitor in 2013.

Paisley helpfully read out a February 2006 letter to Hain from the Attorney General listing Downey among individuals for whom Sinn Fein wanted OTR letters and mentioning he was wanted by police. Yet in June, on Hain's last day in office, Downey was added to the OTR scheme.

Whether it's credible that Hain the politician has no memory of this is for Parliament to determine. But we don't need a committee to reach a conclusion about Hain the human being.

Before the meeting, he was copied by Ann Travers – whose sister Mary, a 22-year-old teacher, was murdered by the IRA in 1984 – into a tweet to two victims' groups recommending that their observers at the meeting should look Hain in the eye: "Hopefully he will see the hurt and damage to victims."

He responded with: "I did as much if not more than any Sec State NI to support victims deeply resent your attack", and 15 minutes later with: "See my article which explains my support for victims."

The important part of the attached article listing Labour Government achievements was: "In truth, it is no answer to pursue prosecutions for Troubles-related crimes, especially when, in 90% of these cases going back 40 years or more, the evidence cannot be retrieved."

Many distressed or angry tweets from victims or sympathisers followed. Hain hasn't rejoined the conversation. He's probably mystified.

It's an occupational hazard for commentators that sometimes you change your mind embarrassingly about those you write about.

In my case, with NI Secretaries of State, the two most striking examples were Mo Mowlam (who dashed my hopes) and Peter Mandelson (who confounded my prejudices).

When it came to Peter Hain, though, there's been absolute consistency. As early as August 2005, three months after he took office, I described him as the epitome of the "'clever-silly' politicians who often get things disastrously wrong" and "don't value humility or wisdom".

A "classic New Labour apparatchik ... 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."

In September 2006 I was describing him as "a seething perma-tanned mass of ambition" who "apart from a vague antipathy to unionists ... has not the faintest interest in the place".

In March 2007, following his facilitation of a DUP/Sinn Fein carve-up, I rated him "the most crass, insensitive and cynical Secretary of State ever endured by Northern Ireland", untroubled by "principles or scruples". Since then I've frequently ground my teeth at his self-satisfied bragging on radio and television.

The word Hain most frequently applies to those who make a fuss about the means used to achieve any end of which he approves is "naive". The word I think of when I reflect on him is "solipsistic" – egoistically self-absorbed.

Mandelson was a tough, often ruthless politician, but he had sensitivity to the feelings of others and great empathy with victims. He wept with some of the bereaved of Omagh and even after leaving office fulfilled his promise to help them bring a civil case against the bombers.

He recognised what we should all recognise, that while there are often no answers for victims, at the very least they deserve a respectful hearing rather than a lecture on how they should move on for the sake of the greater good.

We should look on the bright side, though. Hain leaves Parliament next year.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards