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19 January 2015

Tony Blair gave in too often, but he did secure the Union

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair

What I always thought was the only honourable way of dealing with on-the-runs was spelled out to Tony Blair last week, at the Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee.

Was there on the table, Naomi Long asked, an alternative process to an amnesty that "would have allowed people who were on the run to come forward, face the justice system and then go through the early release system that had been agreed by a majority of the population in the Good Friday Agreement?"

"There were masses of proposals that came forward," answered Blair.

Under pressure, he agreed "that was one of the proposals, but we could not get agreement on it, Naomi."

Blair could have told Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness that this was non-negotiable, but he genuinely believed that, in that case, they might walk and the Agreement would collapse.

Peter Mandelson, as Mrs Long established last November, thought otherwise, feeling that Sinn Fein regarded the OTRs' shady deal "as a bit of a sop to them, to be quite honest - sub-optimal, from their point of view. Therefore, would they have walked away from the entire thing if what they regarded as a sop had not taken place or was withdrawn? I think it is unlikely, but I really cannot say for sure. I do not have a perfect judgment."

"For what it is worth," said Mrs Long, "I would not disagree with your judgment on that. You say also that you felt that the republican movement, if you like, was never fully satisfied with what was offered in terms of the letters."

"To be honest," said Mandelson, "they were never fully satisfied with anything."

They were pretty satisfied with Tony Blair, though. Blair believes in ends and doesn't worry too much about means, and he admires clever, ruthless operators. As Ian Paisley reminded him, he wrote in his autobiography that "Gerry and Martin" were "an extraordinary couple.

"Over time I came to like both greatly, probably more than I should have, if truth be told… They were supreme masters of the distinction between tactics and strategy, they knew the destination and they were determined to bring their followers with them, or at least the vast bulk of them".

I wish someone had asked him why he thought IRA documents seized by police in 2002 referred to him as "The Naive Idiot".

Peter Mandelson wasn't naive and he never had Blair's amorality about murderers. As he would show in his ceaseless support for the Omagh families, he cared about victims. Sinn Fein hated him. Not only did he see through them, but he stuck up for unionists, the police, due process and all sorts of other inconvenient blocks to republicans getting their way, which was why he was replaced as Secretary of State in January 2001.

Yet, we should give Blair his due. He did put himself, heart and soul, into trying to get a deal that would stop Irish people from killing each other over politics, and it was terrible, grinding work.

In his surprisingly candid autobiography, he described how, during the later stages of finalising the Good Friday Agreement, he was in a state of confusion and desperation at the sheer unreasonableness of everyone.

"The surreal issue was the unionist desire to close down somewhere called Maryfield. At first there was confusion, since we thought that the unionists were saying 'Murrayfield' had to close, and even I winced at the prospect of demolishing the Edinburgh home of Scottish rugby that I had visited often as a teenager.

"But it was a measure of our now complete isolation in the negotiating cell that I neither asked why unionism might want to erase a rugby pitch, nor was unprepared to do it."

Blair gave in too often to intransigence, which is why Sinn Fein and the DUP won out, but he had a point when he said to the committee: "People often say to me, particularly from the unionist side, 'What did we ever get out of the Good Friday Agreement?'

"I say, 'Well, for a start, the Union'."

That should matter more to unionists that the squalid concession about the on-the-runs.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards