Northern Ireland

Courage and leadership delivered historic agreement, says Tony Blair

Former British prime minister Tony Blair tells Political Correspondent John Manley how politicians took risks and faced down opposition to deliver the Good Friday Agreement...

Former British prime minister Tony Blair
Former British prime minister Tony Blair Former British prime minister Tony Blair

TONY Blair concedes it was "maybe naive" to think the Good Friday Agreement would deliver political stability in the short-term. The former British prime minister regards the accord's greatest failure as its inability to deliver strong and sustainable devolved government, yet he argues that when compared to the violence of the preceding decades, Good Friday 1998 ushered in "huge and positive change".

"The Good Friday Agreement is probably the only example you can think of in the last quarter of a century of a truly successful peace process," he tells The Irish News. 

"So these things are always difficult, because the roots of the conflict are deep, and when you get a conflict, the level of distrust between different parts of the same community are obviously huge, so it's not surprising but I think, frankly, Brexit has put back on the agenda, a whole lot of things that were better off the agenda."

The 69-year-old former Labour leader regards the recent rise of the Alliance Party as "positive" and indicative of a societal transformation, coupled with frustration at political stagnation.

"The fact is there are people who are growing up having lived with peace in Northern Ireland, there's a new generation, and I think that generation is not going to want to let this disintegrate," he says. 

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"Now, I think there are big challenges in Northern Ireland of an economic and social kind, particularly with some of the poorer and more disadvantaged communities, and I think that should continue to be a focus but it needs to be the focus of the government in Northern Ireland – and it's never satisfactory when you don't have the executive up and running."

He hopes that increasingly the constitutional issue will have less of an influence on people's voting preferences and instead be more about "who does the best job". 

"And yet that's always when a democratic context matures, when people say 'well it doesn't matter whether I'm a Catholic or a Protestant or a unionist, or nationalist – I want the best for the people, I want the people who are going to do the best for the health service, the education, service, law and order and so on'."

Mr Blair acknowledges that the Good Friday Agreement was secured because a number of big political personalities were willing to take risks.

He's reluctant to make comparisons with today's leaders, saying "it's a very challenging thing to be a political leader in today's world". 

"The way the political debate is conducted often tends to favour the more extreme positions just because of the nature of media fragmentation, social media and so on," he says.

However, the former prime minister argues that the Windsor Framework means "there'll be a big test for political leadership in these coming months to get the executive up and running again". 

Asked if unionism in its current predicament needs a leader of David Trimble's courageousness, Mr Blair suggests it was always thus.

"The problem had always been, just by my assessment as a outsider to unionist politics, is that there has always been a deep feeling of distrust within the unionist community, not least towards the UK government," he says. 

"And there's always going to be people who can play on that within the unionist community, there'll always be someone who's shouting betrayal – that's just the nature of the politics."

He argues that political leaders should be "prepared to say to their supporters things that they don't want to hear and not simply things that they do want to hear". 

"That's always the test of leadership but I think Jeffrey Donaldson wants to do the best, not just for the unionist community but for Northern Ireland, and I hope he finds a way of pulling his people along with it," he says.

The former Labour leader names David Trimble, Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness and Seamus Mallon as among those who took the greatest political risk in 1998. 

"Those people who were gambling their entire political future on it – that was a big risk," he says. 

He says political progress is conditional on "the context being right and the leadership being there – we were lucky because we had both".

"Coming to the end of the 20th century, the relationship between the British and the Irish governments improved enormously in a way personified in my relationship with Bertie Ahern, and people in Northern Ireland were tired and exhausted by this conflict," he says.

Mr Blair singles out late Progressive Unionist Party leader David Ervine for particular praise, describing him as a "remarkable man". He ponders how the loyalist parties came to the fore at the time of the agreement but then lost their political momentum.

"I think the loyalists that I dealt with were people that were very focused on working class communities in Belfast and elsewhere, who felt that their economic and social aspirations were also ignored by the political process," he says. 

"I think part of the challenge for loyalism was that they had expectations of progress on those things and I think they were never fulfilled in the way that they wanted to.

"The purpose of the peace process is not simply that you deliver peace, but then you deliver peace in order to deliver progress that you end up in a situation where people's lives become better by their daily life becomes better – and that's why I still think in the communities of Northern Ireland, both in the nationalist republican and loyalist communities, there's still a lot of work to be done."

Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern signing the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. Picture by John Giles/PA
Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern signing the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. Picture by John Giles/PA Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern signing the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. Picture by John Giles/PA

On long-standing criticism, primarily from the Ulster Unionists and SDLP, over changing aspects of the Good Friday Agreement at St Andrews some eight years later, Mr Blair is defensive, arguing it was "the only way we could see".

"Six months on from that [St Andrews] we got the executive up and running with Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley in the driving seat, so it fulfilled its objective," he says.

"One of the things that I learned very early on in the Northern Ireland process is that you can't really make progress unless you bring everyone along, and it's very hard to bring everyone along and reach a consensus on a perfect proposal."

The former prime minister speaks of a tension between "making sure that the best wasn't the enemy of the good".

"So even things like the decommissioning or policing reform –  the objections to what we were doing at the time and afterwards, were perfectly legitimate, it's just if you wanted to make progress, you had to make compromise," he says. 

The former Labour leader also notes that crucial to achieving agreement was ditching his party's traditional support for Irish unity.

"Obviously, both sides at different times would accuse us of being partial, but I don't think we could have done the Northern Ireland peace agreement if I hadn't made that change and Labour's essential position," he says.