Prince of Darkness returns to spin for Dour Scot
Deaglán de Bréadún
So the Prince of Darkness is back. I’m not sure if the word “stroke” has the same resonance in British politics as it does here in Ireland but Gordon Brown pulled the stroke of the year in restoring his old political enemy Peter Mandelson to the British Cabinet.
Hard to think of an equivalent coup in recent Irish politics. The late Charles Haughey pulled one with the appointment of Fine Gael TD Richard Burke to the European Commission in 1982 but, unfortunately for CJH, Fianna Fail lost the subsequent by-election. The nearest equivalent was probably Haughey inviting his bitter foe Des O’Malley into Cabinet back in 1989.
The stories about Mandelson are legion. One wonders how many are completely true and how many are made up or at least embroidered. It’s said that Brown himself told one about Mandelson asking for 10p to make a phone call to one of his friends. Someone replied: “Here’s 20p, why not phone both of them.”
Another quip was when John Prescott was photographed with a spider crab in a jar. In an apparent swipe at Mandelson, he mischievously named it “Peter”.
A personal favourite is the one that plays on Mandelson’s supposed poshness and distance from the ordinary working class. He is canvassing in a working-class area during a general election when the team pulls into a chip shop. Ordering his fish and chips, Mandy espies a bowl of mushy peas on the counter. “I’ll take some of that guacamole,” he declares. (Authorship attributet to Neil Kinnock.)
Mandelson was not popular with nationalists during his time as Northern Ireland Secretary but he can point to his achievement in getting the power-sharing Executive set up on two occasions. He acted as a persuader with the unionists, who had no time at all for his predecessor Mo Mowlam.
I was Northern Editor of The Irish Times for part of Mandelson’s time in Belfast and I have to say I always found him obliging, courteous and cooperative – rather more so than Mowlam in my experience, even if she was a favourite with the green side of the equation.
Mandelson would not be well-loved in Government circles in Dublin where he got the blame – although there was no concrete evidence – for the notorious leak of a British diplomatic memo in 1999 which unfairly painted Brian Cowen as a knee-jerk sea-green, or as Joyce would say, “snot-green”, nationalist. Mandy’s criticism of the Dublin’s latest move on the banks will endear him even less to Merrion Street.
We will hear no more of David Miliband for a good while now. That challenge can be considered well and truly “on hold”. Of course he hasn’t gone away, you know. The opinion polls will decide everything and who better than the Sultan of Spin at turning those around?
The Irish farmers will be glad to see Mandelson gone from his role as EU representative at the WTO negotiations. They never felt he was on their side. There is an argument that the the farmers’ case is too readily accepted in this country, but that’s a discussion for another day.
So hats off to the man they call the Dour Scot. With one fell swoop he has transformed British politics from a predictable bore, where the only question was how soon David Cameron would take over, to an even-steven contest where both sides are in with a chance.
Deaglán de Bréadún, Political Correspondent, The Irish Times