14 October 1999
Spinning Northern Ireland
The appointment of Peter Mandelson to the post of Northern Ireland
secretary finds the Six Counties once again made the backdrop of political
posturing, writes James Heartfield
The Prince of Darkness' return to the cabinet after the undeclared home
loan 'scandal' is a boost for the prime minister, for whom Mandelson is an
important ally. But for all of Mandelson's black arts the prospect of a
breakthrough in Northern Ireland's so-called peace process is unlikely.
It was all so different back then. In 1997, prime minister Blair and
President Clinton basked in the warm glow of Derry's admiration. A town
that had been so slighted for so long was understandably flattered to
welcome two of the world's most respected leaders.
Last week Clinton mused that the players in the Northern Ireland peace
process were a pair of old drunks, who, swearing that they will give up,
turn back for one more just as they reach the door. Perhaps a joke about
drunken Paddies was bound to provoke some voluble lobbies, but in any event
few could have missed the president's disappointment with the peace process.
And in the summer, just back from a photo-opportunity of a victory in
Kosovo, Tony Blair staked his reputation on getting an agreement between
the Ulster Unionists and Sinn Fein to sit together in a Northern Irish
government. David Trimble's Ulster Unionists did what Slobodan Milosevic
could not: they faced down Tony Blair's last and final offer.
Since then the peace process has failed to produce dividends for the
government. Without the IRA's agreement to decommission its arms or the
Unionists' to accept Sinn Fein into a Northern Ireland cabinet, the
euphoria and the kudos have dried up. Once again the Northern Ireland
minister's job is the ugly sister in the cabinet.
Initiatives like the Bloody Sunday inquiry or the Patten report on the
Royal Ulster Constabulary only succeed in raising false expectations among
nationalists and offending diehard Unionists. Without substantial movement
from the parties, they only succeed in creating hostility.
Peter Mandelson certainly seems to be the man for the job. Duplicity and a
thick skin have been the stock-in-trade of Northern Ireland secretaries.
Temperamentally, Mandelson is well suited to the role of facing down
entrenched positions - having done just that in the Labour Party. The
Unionists may come to wish that they had not lobbied for Mo Mowlam's removal.
For Mandelson, it is a chance to rehabilitate himself after the press
tripped him up with just the sort of puffed-up scandal that he had used
with such effect against his enemies. Mandelson trailed his desire to take
over the brief behind the scenes, talking up his experiences as a Weekend
World reporter on Northern Ireland in the 1980s. His perennial difficulty
is that he has always been better at being unpleasant to people than
winning popular support. His old friend the prime minister might well think
that that is just what is needed in Northern Ireland. And for Mandelson the
appointment is an opportunity. The trick is to make the warring factions
swallow bitter medicine, winning praise at home.
In Northern Ireland Mandelson's job will be to face down the Unionists, and
try to begin dismantling the extraordinary military and political machine
that has been built for them by successive British governments. Unionism is
a textbook case of the 'forces of conservatism' that the prime minister has
vowed to rid the country of. Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams has said it is
crucial that Mandelson 'implements British government policy'. Mandelson
might find the Unionists a bit harder to do over than their Conservative
colleagues. And creating a police apparatus that enjoys the respect of
nationalists and Unionists alike is a dim prospect.
Mandelson's long experience in backroom fixing and undermining entrenched
political movements will be turned against both sides in the conflict. The
fate of the people of Northern Ireland, though, has once again been left in
the hands of politicians that are principally concerned with enhancing
their own positions.
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