Electronic Telegraph The Daily Telegraph - Comment and Opinion
Thursday 23 Aug 2001
Issue number 45489
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To keep his pledge, Tony Blair should blame the IRA terrorists

By Kate Hoey

News: Kate Hoey attacks Blair over Ireland

THE current crisis in the peace process in Northern Ireland is especially troubling to me. Spending a lot of time at home in Ulster recently has made me well aware of the profound sense of disillusionment that exists among good, decent citizens.

I am regularly approached by people asking me to express regret for my active campaigning, alongside the Prime Minister, for the Belfast Agreement. These conversations provoke a definite personal unease.

On May 14, 1998, I flew to Belfast with Tony Blair to hear him give a speech designed to calm Unionist concerns. To an audience of leading figures in the Ulster farming community at the Balmoral Show, Mr Blair said that, if paramilitary-linked parties were to benefit from an accelerated release of prisoners and executive posts, their commitment to democratic, non-violent means had to be established in a verifiable way.

He went on to say that parties that wanted to take up ministerial posts would have to make a clear and unequivocal commitment that violence had ended for good; for the ceasefires to be complete and unequivocal, there had to be an end to bombings, beatings, killings and the acquisition of weapons, and the progressive dismantling of paramilitary structures. Mr Blair also emphasised that the agreement required decommissioning to be completed within two years of the referendum.

In my view, the Prime Minister's version of the meaning of the agreement was crucial in the achievement of the subsequent "yes" vote in the referendum a week later. Unhappily, the expectations raised by his pledge have so far been disappointed.

There has been a lengthy catalogue of beatings, kneecappings and murders carried out by the mainstream IRA. There has been the Florida gun-running case and the strange events in Colombia. Mitchel McLaughlin brazenly acknowledged to the Observer that the IRA guns are not silent. However, I have a more general unease. It goes to the heart of New Labour's message on democracy, citizenship and equality.

The Government could be said to be operating a dangerous double standard on key matters of policy. We reacted so strongly to the tragedy of Dunblane that our successful Commonwealth Games shooting team has to practise in Switzerland. At the same time, we allow, in part of the United Kingdom, terrorists to keep and use their weapons almost at will.

We claim to be tough on crime, but demoralise the RUC at the behest of the paramilitaries. Would we dream of making the Metropolitan Police accommodate the Yardies? I am proud to represent a multi-racial seat and proud that the Government is tough on racial hatred, but why then are we so indulgent of the racial hatred of Irish republicans, who have been responsible for the lion's share of political murder in Ulster? We rightly stand up against ethnic cleansing in the Balkans, but fail to condemn it in the United Kingdom.

We send representatives to monitor international elections - I myself was part of the Angolan monitoring group - but we tolerate election irregularities and fraud in Northern Ireland that would not be tolerated in Angola.

In New Labour, we rightly talk about equality of citizenship, but there can be no real equality of citizenship for the people of Ulster while the Labour Party continues to deny membership to its citizens.

As a citizen of the United Kingdom, born and raised in Northern Ireland, I expect my Prime Minister to defend my basic civil rights as he defends the civil rights of other citizens born in the rest of the United Kingdom. Unlike most of my parliamentary colleagues, I was actively involved in the struggle for civil rights in Northern Ireland and indeed was arrested on the Bloody Sunday demonstration at Downing Street in 1972. I am saddened that, almost three decades later, Labour still denies a basic civil right to the people of Northern Ireland.

This ban is especially worrying in the light of the Irish government's unashamed advocacy of the nationalist and republican agenda in Ulster. It seems untroubled by concerns of fairness and impartiality. I know that Peter Mandelson, when secretary of state, registered this imbalance and was aware of its capacity to destabilise the province.

Mr Blair said in May 1997: "Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, alongside England, Scotland and Wales. The Union binds the four parts of the United Kingdom together. I believe in the United Kingdom. I value the Union." The Irish government took great exception to this speech and, since then, the Government has been reluctant to use such language. The effect of such timidity has been to undermine support for the agreement among the British people of Northern Ireland.

I know how much time the Prime Minister has devoted to Northern Ireland and his deep commitment to bringing peace.

The reason I was so happy to support the original campaign for the agreement was because, in my view, he had got it right. He understood that support for the agreement was dependent on a clear articulation of certain values. These included, in accordance with the principle of consent, the right of the people of Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom. As he said himself in May 1997: "None of us in this hall today, even the youngest, is likely to see Northern Ireland as anything but a part of the United Kingdom."

He was right also in his intuition that the people of Northern Ireland needed decommissioning to happen if the agreement was to survive.

Since then, these fundamental principles have been marginalised to the extent that many of those who speak to me at home feel he never meant a word of his original pledges. I do not accept that, but time is running out for the agreement.

The Government has been playing a complex game of appeasement with republicans. At first it deliberately colluded in the republican version of Irish history in order to make it easier for them to make peace. More recently, it seems that the Government has begun to believe in the republican version of Irish history, a version that has never come to terms with the realities of Ulster life.

Mr Mandelson was the last cabinet minister to place the blame for the crisis in the process precisely where it belongs - with the IRA. After the events of the past few days, including the news from Colombia, it will be only such plain speaking that can save the agreement.

  • Kate Hoey is the Labour MP for Vauxhall

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