A favourite curmudgeon

 

Mercifully we were early. For it soon became clear the French chap on the desk had never heard of us, the publisher, or, for that matter, of Sir Edward Heath.

Further checks confirmed that he was not expected. Certainly no arrangements had been made, no room reserved. (The relaxed assumption, we learned later, was that we'd find a corner somewhere.). But the bar was busy. There was too much background noise in the upstairs dining room. No, we'd have to have a suite and worry about who paid for it later.

It might be going on 25 years since Sir Edward was prime minister. But, hey, he remains, as young William Hague might say, one of Britain's "big beasts". And apparently an irritable beast at that. The one-time Tory leader has been described as "Britain's favourite curmudgeon" - although the comments of some who'd recently interviewed him suggested doubt about the degree of affection.

Certainly there was no point risking his good humour for want of a suitable location. The hotel came up trumps - although there was an intake of breath as Sir Edward made some gruff remark during his passage along a seemingly-never-ending corridor.

And the tension continued as our photographer put him through his paces. Turn this way and that, raise your hand, drop it, pull the table forward, look this way, now that, fix the journalist with a beady eye. He did. Were there really any new angles to be had of the 82-year-old Sir Edward, I wondered, as the camera clicked and I fretted lest this performance put him in bad form.

But he obliged without obvious sign of irritation. Maybe that "rude . . . arrogant . . . petulant . . ." stuff had been overdone.

Perchance we'd just caught him on a good day. Or maybe it was simply that he likes the Irish. "Always have done," he later confides, adding, with obvious pleasure, "and I find that south of the Border they like me." And many undoubtedly do: not least because of his celebrated dislike of the lady who seized the leadership from him back in 1975.

Certainly people in the Republic, as elsewhere, have watched "the greatest sulk in history" with endless fascination. More importantly, in terms of social and economic policy, many there would have shared Sir Edward's disdain for the "aberration" of the Thatcherite 1980s. There is widespread admiration for his consistent espousal of the European ideal. And (there is always a caveat: Bloody Sunday apart) there is ready recognition that the Heath government blazed an early trail for what later became the peace process.

Seamus Mallon, indeed, described the process of negotiation leading to the Belfast Agreement as "Sunningdale for slow learners". And reading "The Broken Emerald" chapter in Sir Edward's just-published autobiography, The Course of My Life, it is indeed striking, the degree to which he, Willie Whitelaw and Peter Carrington wrote much of the script.

With the perhaps-unusual charge of modesty, I wonder if Sir Edward agrees with that assessment? "Absolutely," comes the reply: "The Good Friday Agreement was modelled on Sunningdale. But the present prime minister has never acknowledged that. He may even be ignorant of it for all I know . . . But obviously we know the people who were working out the new agreement went back over the whole of Sunningdale and more or less copied it."

John Hume later made much of British "neutrality" on the question of the Union established, as he saw it, by the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985. But in his autobiography - well-written but lacking the minutiae which often give such books their distinctive appeal - Sir Edward recalls he was the first prime minister to say Britain had "no selfish interest" in the North, and talks of a policy of "benign neutrality".

Had that neutrality (as unionists saw it at the time) been about breaking the unionist monolith? Or was it about reconciling nationalists to the reality of the Union? "Its first purpose was to reconcile the two sides in Ulster itself and see there was a fair deal between them, which there hadn't been in the past. It wasn't until we took office that some of us realised how difficult things had been . . . The second objective was, as a result of having that, to have a fair deal between the two sides of the Border." There was no push for Irish unity, says Sir Edward. And he dismisses unionist complaints that the Council of Ireland would have given power to the South, observing that ministers would have retained the power of veto.

He also hoped, of course, that Brian Faulkner's position would be bolstered by the withdrawal of the Republic's constitutional claim to the North. There are no harsh words, in the book or now, about the failure of the Cosgrave government to deliver. Only sadness, and an acute awareness that this is one of the big differences between Sunningdale and the Belfast Agreement, arrived at a painful 24 years on.

Sir Edward says Brian Faulkner knew from the outset that his premiership was the last chance for Stormont. And he thinks him mistaken to have refused to stay in office while Westminster assumed control of security. But he speaks warmly of him and did think about delaying the 1974 election to sustain him and the power-sharing executive.

Sir Edward laments "Wilson's" failure to support the executive in face of the Ulster Workers' Council strike, and appears in no doubt the result would have been different had he remained in office. Would he really have faced it down?

"Oh yes, of course," he replies. Perhaps. Certainly sitting next to him it seems entirely possible. This was the man, after all, who had the RAF and the navy on standby for Operation Motorman - when the British army reclaimed the "no-go areas" of the Bogside and the Creggan in 1972. Given Airey Neave's early courtship of the unionists, had Sir Edward been surprised that Margaret Thatcher stuck to the essential ongoing British policy and eventually signed the Hillsborough Agreement? "It was something of a surprise," he concedes. And did he praise her for it? "I think I did, yes," he replies, grinning: "But I'd have to look up the record." The 1974 settlement represented an attempt to bring the "constitutional" parties together, and presupposed a continuing security problem with the IRA. Sir Edward has no complaint about the strategy this time of pitching to the extremes and bringing the paramilitaries in - although he's anything but convinced Tony Blair should have felt obliged to offer a fresh inquiry into the events of Bloody Sunday.

He says "yes" he has been impressed by David Trimble, although "it remains to be seen how successful they're going to be if there's trouble". He thinks Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness (involved in those abortive talks with his own government) have grown "tired of the conflict" and are for real. But pondering the dilemma over decommissioning, he adds: "the question is, are they completely in control for real?".

Changing direction, I wonder if Hague (no euro for 10 years) is entirely for real, and at last win a glimpse of that famous temper: "I don't want to discuss party politics . . . we're discussing the book." But it is in the book, it's the big issue of his life and times. And without further ado Sir Edward confirms that, as Michael Heseltine and Ken Clarke have made clear, the Tory argument will continue. Hague's decision was totally unnecessary: "A lot of the problem would have been avoided had the leader of the party not said he would do nothing if returned to power for 10 years. That was entirely unnecessary. If he'd just said we will see how this works out, and decide if it's to our benefit or not, everybody could have accepted that."

Yet if Hague is mistaken, can he understand Blair's reluctance to make a commitment and go for it? "I don't understand his position because he's got such a big majority now, and if he had trouble in his own ranks he could deal with it perfectly well. To put it off until after the next election, he won't have such a large majority even if he wins. And I would have thought his difficulties were then going to be greater. So I don't see the point of delay."

"If" Blair wins? So Sir Edward doesn't think it a foregone conclusion, then? "No. But he does . . ." The great sulk was allegedly ended the other week over a few polite words in Bournemouth at the Tory party conference. But Sir Edward and the Baroness clearly have something approaching a constitutional difficulty in agreeing about anything. Hague, at least, will be pleased!

The Course of My Life by Sir Edward Heath is published by Hodder & Stoughton, price £25 in UK