Alastair Campbell: ‘I sense that Northern Ireland is not on the London government’s radar’
Labour’s former spin doctor gives his verdict on Ahern and Trimble and wonders if complacency has set in
Alastair Campbell: ‘It saddens me the extent to which Bertie [Ahern] is denigrated because he was a really big part of the whole thing’
Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern have written introductions for Alastair Campbell’s new book, The Irish Diaries, his record of the events leading up to the Belfast Agreement and after. Nostalgia seeps through both, especially in the case of Ahern, whose reputation has fallen since the mantle of power passed.
Campbell, says Ahern, has written an “exciting first-hand account of a critical period in Irish history when incredible steps were taken to build peace in Ireland and to end decades of violence”. Reading the account, culled from four earlier volumes of diaries, “reminds me again of the late-night meetings, the early morning summits and the sheer physical demands of peace-building”, Ahern remembers.
Campbell, reclining on a sofa in his north London home, remains a fan of Ahern. “It saddens me the extent to which Bertie is denigrated because he was a really big part of the whole thing.”
Blair had met Ahern’s predecessor, John Bruton, in September 1995, nearly two years before Blair emphatically won the British general election in May 1997. “[Bruton] seemed in a really bad way. He was twitching, rubbing his eyes, then letting his head fall into his hands. He said the UK government had got themselves caught on the decommissioning hook.”
“He said he was absolutely convinced the IRA would not hand over weapons ‘as a gesture’, that Gerry Adams was coming under pressure,” Campbell recorded. In an attempt “to ease the mood a bit, Bruton suggested as a joke that we talk about EMU [European economic and monetary union] instead.”
Blair and Ahern first met in July 1997, just a week after Ahern had taken over in Government Buildings. First impressions on the British side were mixed. “[There was] a clear difference in mood between Bruton and Ahern. BA was a nice enough bloke, and very affable, but TB felt he was basically putting the Sinn Féin line most of the time . . . Bruton had basically been hostile to SF. Ahern was not. TB said after they went he was worried the peace process had taken a setback,” Campbell recorded.
Though the diary entries have not been altered, Campbell occasionally allows himself the benefit of hindsight, particularly regarding former Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble. “I have said that my diaries are quite unfair to him because he could be so infuriating and difficult, but he was the right guy at that time for that party for that incredibly difficult collection of people.”
Campbell notes top British civil servant John Holmes’s judgment that Trimble “brings his enemies with him”.
“It was so different with Sinn Féin. It was like watching a really, solid ‘every man behind the ball” defence and they all moved at the same pace.
“With the Unionists you would literally sit there sometimes and watch them having an argument. Trimble would say something and somebody else would chip in, “I’m not sure about that’.”
During Labour’s years in power, Blair was frequently attacked by the British media for the amount of time devoted to the North. Today, the issues that pre-occupy Downing Street have changed.
“You do get this sense across the spectrum that it is not a priority. They have got to be careful about that. “[John] Major made it a priority, Blair made it an absolute priority. He was like a dog with a bone. I do get a sense that it is not on the current government’s radar,” he tells me.
In September, Campbell went to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester to speak at a meeting on alcohol. “You do feel that they are a very English party. I felt that in Manchester,” he says. He manages to sound just a little surprised by this. Neglect “might be a little hard”, he says, returning to the North, but “there is a little bit of complacency”.
Equally, he says, Northern Ireland does not trumpet the achievement of the Agreement. “I don’t live there, and I am always hesitant about looking on it from afar. Still, I wonder if there isn’t to some extent a slight taking for granted of the extent of that change and progress. There was a popular groundswell then to get to a better place.”
Ten years out of No 10, Campbell remains a byword for manipulating the media. “It is funny [when] you see people writing about communications and spin that we are still the ones that define it.”
Defending Campbell, top British civil servant Robert Armstrong once said that perhaps he had been economical with the truth. “[He] got vilified for that,but everybody knows it’s the case.”
New Labour’s reputation can be taken “as an insult, or compliment, or both, but what it says to me is that we did define this changed world of communications. I understand that people felt misled, but if I look at the all the big things that we were involved in – Northern Ireland, Kosovo – [they] were the ones where communications was fundamental to things happening. I am very proud of [that] and the role I played, but I am still defined by it, and that does seem odd given that it was so long ago.”
Campbell, who has now written 10 books, including several novels, has moved on. “I have a very nice life now. I go to Spain tomorrow to speak to a conference on alcohol. I do work in the Balkans. I worked with the Albanian Socialist Party in opposition. “They are now in government,” he says, with just a hint of a smile.