A recent visit to the National Archives in Kew, London, prompted reflections on the optimism and trepidation of 25 years ago as the new British Labour government under Tony Blair sought to inject the Irish peace process with momentum. The release of state files from the late 1990s highlights the extent to which Ireland was a priority and the degree to which that young Labour government was not carrying as much ideological baggage about the Irish question as its predecessors.
In the summer of 1997 alone, there was a lengthy list of Irish subject matter that came across the prime minister’s desk: briefs for meetings with new Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, telephone calls with Martin McGuinness, the legacy of Bloody Sunday, the standoff over Drumcree, a memorandum on resolving decommissioning, counsel with John Hume and with regard to Sinn Féin, the need to “keep them boxed in” to the peace process while also weighing the concerns of the late David Trimble.
There were plenty of setbacks, much distrust and laboriousness (meetings that were, according to Blair, “interminable, circular and unproductive”) as well as the iteration of the mantra about the necessity in Northern Ireland for “both sides to reflect on their wider responsibilities to the community”, and, regarding Anglo-Irish relations, “to get the relationship, both formal and personal, off to a good start” with the desire that meetings be “frank and businesslike” and that both governments “remain in step”.
Blair later recalled that prior to victory in the May 1997 general election when he told John Prescott he wanted to focus on Northern Ireland, Prescott “snorted with derision”, but Blair recognised that attempts made by the previous John Major government to assemble some of the elements that might make an agreement could be built on. Initially, Blair wanted “to take complete charge of the negotiations”.
There was an element of Blair also wanting to fit “fixing” Northern Ireland into his wider modernising mission, as he thought the conflict in Northern Ireland “had become ridiculously old-fashioned”. It was also deemed imperative that the Labour Party formally adopt a neutral position on the constitutional future of Northern Ireland.
Blair’s ego mattered too, as he sought to square a circle his predecessors could not, but the efforts of a quarter of a century ago are also a reminder of the extent to which the space for comprehending Ireland has so obviously shrunk.
Liz Truss, likely to be the next British prime minister, has not demonstrated any interest in or understanding of Ireland, like the outgoing catastrophe of a prime minister, Boris Johnson, whom she still lauds. Most egregiously, Truss is a cheerleader for the insistence that ramming the Northern Ireland protocol Bill through the House of Commons is about saving the Belfast Agreement (”a profound duty and commitment”) when in reality, the British government has for some time now demonstrated little interest in working that agreement; it is merely useful to reference it rhetorically for internal English political battles and to manufacture a front for accusations against Brussels. Truss’s ridiculous and deceitful assertion in May that the Northern Ireland protocol was always meant to be a short-term fix stands alongside her party’s championing of it in 2019 as the great Brexit enabler.
When, in his famous book of 1935, The Strange Death of Liberal England, George Dangerfield looked back at the embrace by the Tories of Ulster unionist extremism and threatened rebellion during the Home Rule crisis of 1912-14, he noted that with it, the Tories ensured “something died: that attitude of critical and grumbling respect for government, which had been fostered through over 200 years of revolution and reform”, and that due to their disdain “the position of parliament had shrunk”.
Truss and her colleagues have done a fine job of sinking it further in recent years while continuing the Tory tradition of using Ireland, and the Ulster unionists, as pawns. In the meantime, Truss has outlined her overarching political vision via Twitter: “I am determined to double down on levelling up so that everyone has the opportunity to succeed as part of an aspirant nation.” If this represents a new, post-Johnson dawn in British politics, it is surely a dawn to dread.
While the Irish government will understandably use the opportunity of a change of British leader to talk up the prospect of “resetting” Anglo-Irish relations, the prospects of that are slim and the 25th anniversary of the Belfast Agreement next year will be a muted and downbeat affair.
Interviewed last week by Tim Shipman of the Sunday Times, Truss did not deny reports that she has regularly spoken to Tony Blair in recent times; perhaps he could attempt to educate her about the events of 25 years ago and the need for a new prime minister to have at least some grasp of both British and Irish history.