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A peace process still strong

Posted on 9 March 2009 | 8:03am

‘Saturday August 15 1998 (holiday, Flassan) 

Wendy Abbs [Downing Street duty clerk] came through on the other line to say there had been a huge explosion in Omagh, 12 thought to be dead, the PM was just being told, having just arrived at the house in France … I asked her to fix a conference call … As we spoke, reports were coming in that the death toll may be higher and all the ease that had been in TB’s voice at the start was gone. I said he would have to do TV straight away … I said we had to get over that the peace process is bigger than a group of fanatics who want to derail it. TB weighed in, saying we had to be making clear every peace process always faced disruption from people who wanted to destroy it. This was the last resistance and if we saw it off with public opinion there totally on our side, it could be another turning point.  But how we react will dictate that.’

I thought of that exchange yesterday when I heard the news of the two soldiers killed in Nothern Ireland. The attack was brutal and a dreadful tragedy for the soldiers killed and others who were injured. For a small number of families, it was a horrible life-changing event. But for the peace process, the reaction from politicians and public indicated its strength not its weakness.

I had been talking about Northern Ireland at a Labour fundraiser on Friday night when in the q and a I was asked what I thought the Blair government should be proudest of. Northern Ireland figured very high in the list. I’ve said before that for me the single greatest moment of my time with TB was when we got onto a small plane in Belfast having, after several days and nights of intense negotiation, finally secured the Good Friday Agreement. As TB said at the time, it was only the first step, but it was a huge one, and with all the obstacles along the way since, it paved the way for a truly transformed Northern Ireland, one of his many contributions to history.

There was a bit of complaint on the Unionist side yesterday that Sinn Fein were not straight out of the blocks with a condemnation of the weekend killings. But Sinn Fein politics remains complicated, and as TB memorably said on another occasion in The Blair Years, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness go about their business with a modicum of fear that someone might come along and blow their brains out. Their words, when they came, underlined just how far we have come. They were words of clear condemnation, words of attack on people who simply do not want peace to work, words of warning that the attacks were not just wrong, but counterproductive.

There was a time, under Mrs Thatcher’s government, when Sinn Fein interviews had to be dubbed with the voice of actors because they were banned from carrying their message on TV. I always felt that was counterproductive, and what I heard from Adams and McGuinness yesterday was a clear, strong voice that told of phenomenal progreess in the decade since Omagh.

Back then, we had to work hard on Bill Clinton and his US officials to make sure they put pressure on Sinn Fein to make the right noises about the bombers being divorced from where the majority Republican opinion lay. Yesterday it happened without such pressure. ‘TB said there will be obstacles along the way but the forces of good have to prevail,’ I recorded in the diaries. And when he visited Omagh in the immediate aftermath, the message came back from victims, their families and ordinary members of the public ‘don’t give up.’

It was the same when we went there a few days later with Bill Clinton who, right at the height of the Lewinsky affair, got a huge emotional lift from the warmth of the response when he spoke to a huge crowd in Armagh of why the peace process was so important to him, and why it was too strong to be broken.

Progress in Northern Ireland was the result of bold leadership, commitment from a lot of different people for often very different reasons, hard work and an attitude that says whatever is thrown at you, you just keep going. These latest murders go down as ‘obstacles along the way’ but what is clear from the way people have reacted is that the forces of good are continuing to prevail.

  • Rosie

    I was on holiday in Italy at the time of the bombing and watched endless coverage on Sky. There were three middle aged ladies from Belfast staying at the same hotel, and they said that despite all the efforts of various politicians, they didn’t think there was any possibility of peace in their lifetimes.. Peace was all that the various communities craved, but they didn’t see that the fanatics could ever be persuaded to give up their arms.

    I still think of them now. I bet they’re so glad to have been proved so wrong!

  • Student for dissertation

    When Tony Blair said the hand of history was on his shoulder, was that planned, or was it, like you say in your book, an accident?

  • Johnny Mills

    The tragic incident at the weekend is actually a sign that the peace process is working. The Government needs to ensure that both sides of the political/religious divide remain united in their common goal. The will of the people must win the day.

    My one fear is that the current economic situation, coupled with (unfounded) immigration issues breeds a new type of ‘angry young man’, who can be easily led by the extremist factions. History shows us this is often the case.

  • Tony Schröder

    Dear Mr Campbell

    I have just read your excellent article on education. Two small points. If Chris Woodhead was so bad – always harping on about the “state promotion of mediocrity for years”, why didn’t the Labour government sack him? You would have had my, and I suspect many others, full support.
    Second point:To use the [Spanish] cedilla; From the Menu Bar (at the top of your word-processor), simply select Insert, – then select Symbol. (All the foreign language characters are here and readily available.) Alternatively, enlist on a word-processing course.

    Yours sincerely.

    Mr A Schröder.

  • ian.eastwood

    Dear Alastair.

    Something to think about in football.
    After returning from the wonderful stadium they call the The Emirates and what a piece of engineering it really is. But I can’t help but wonder what is happening to the game we love.
    As I often do I saw you Cheering on the team you have followed like me, and my son of 18 who saw is first game at 3, for over forty years. God knows how many miles I have travelled to watch the Clarets. It’s a 150 mile round trip now just to watch the home games.
    I am now approaching my 50th birthday in November, and I have seen a lot of changes in this time. But it saddens me what I have experienced on our travels in the great cup run we have enjoyed this season.
    I am of course talking about the sterilisation of so called top flight premier division football. We have been to the 3 top grounds in London this season Arsenal, Chelsea and spurs. I believe the corporate pound have to a large extent ruined these great clubs.
    We arrived at Arsenal yesterday found a car park on a school playground at a cost of £20.00 (along way from the parking fee on the cricket field,) but so be it. I asked the attendant if we were near the away end, he looked at me quizzically and said “it doesn’t matter you can walk all the way round.” All the way round I thought, years ago would I have wanted or dared walk all the way round Highbury or anywhere near the shed end at Chelsea? Not on your Nelly. Now I an not advocating for one minuet a return to the days of mindless violence and having to run for your lives as you left the grounds, But when visiting away grounds you are supposed to feel intimidated it’s the LAW. I don’t know about your day yesterday but it felt like visiting madam Tusords or the London eye, more like a tourist attraction than a gladiator’s arena.
    I know that not all grounds are like that and there are still plenty of clubs were it’s not always a good idea to nail your colours to the mast, and maybe I look back thru rose tinted glasses at the away days at Leeds on boxing day being chased, getting a size ten Doc martin up my arse and missing my coach home in the 70s etc. But I know what will stick in my mind the longest and I won’t be Arsenal. Even if we had won.
    With any luck Burnley will return to the top flight soon, and I will still follow the team what ever happens from 1st division down to the 4th and back my son will make sure of that.
    And when we do get there I hope there are still some grounds left that when the players take to the pitch the atmosphere makes the hair stand up on the back of your neck. Maybe St James’s, Upton Park, Can’t think of many more. Back to the emirates not sure been there seen it and almost got the T shirt.

    Ian Eastwood.
    imeclaret@btinternet.com

  • Dissertation Student

    I have been exploring the historic claim of the press as an empowered and independent Fourth Estate for about 5 months now. Part of my investigation involved deconstructing the influence of Public Relations as an undermining force of journalist autonomy and reliability. As an individual that has uniquely experienced both sides of this debate, and published you opinion on the topic, how would you react to this statement.

    Any insight that you could shed would be would be greatly appreciated.

    Yours Sincerely, Ben

  • Alina Palimaru

    Alastair, your optimistic outlook, dismissing these acts as mere obstacles, is needed at the moment. From what I gather from a few reactions I heard in the U.S. coverage, some hint at the old British quip that every time the Irish Question is thought to be solved the Irish change the question. Hopefully, as you suggest, this is not the case. I hope the shooting is not indicative of any latent bitterness.

    The peace agreement credited to TB’s account was very wise, carefully addressing the issue of nationhood and allowing the people of Northern Ireland to envision their status in any way they wanted. It would be a shame to set the process back.

  • Trevor Moss

    Your comment on early retirement – and not feeling pressure to go for the next project. Being a project-driven animal – (‘vol sector/ set it up and let it loose type’) – I was derailed by ill- health aged 57 in 2007 after fighting epilepsy since I was 18. I lost my home first. The savings/pensions went next – my income is down to 33% of Oct 2007. I moved from UK to Germany to be with my partner and now carer. The governance ‘old boy, connections’ kleptocracy in public and private sectors in UK needs complete- complete reform. Commonsense/no nonsense thinking, combined with innate curiosity and absolute commitment to truth and honesty is a personal requirement for Fit and Proper persons to take this role. We need a register of such qualified people – and this is place for those who are ‘out of play’ earlier in life. (Excluding ‘fat cats’?)……T.

  • rusty Gladdish

    They have shot a policeman in Northern Ireland two days after the army barracks shooting. Clearly the work of the same dissidents. This is not good news but they must stay strong!!!

  • Andrewnze

    Alistair Do you miss front line Politics? being in the mix of things?

  • John Dawson

    Dear Mr Campbell

    I am sure you still carry some influence within the Labour Party, that I so desperately want to believe in. However I do feel the present Tory opposition have stole a march on them with public opinion and they are not fighting back. To win the next election Labour has to fight dirty. Cameron is a double glazing salesman who has got his foot in the door with the help of slick presentation aided by powerful backers in the media. He needs to be exposed for the cheap skate lying individual he is. He has a second agenda that no one will get to hear about until he is safe with a majority and it will be a disaster for the millions of ordinary working people and families in this country who have benefited so much from the present government. I work with and represent many of them, unlike the chattering middle classes they will not be able to tighten their belts a little while all the benefits of 12 years of Labour are withdrawn or watered down considerably.
    I recently received an e-mail from an organisation called Unions Together, which was attacking Cameron with a petition to expose him for the fraud he is. At last I thought, someone is starting an aggressive campaign against them but as a member of the Labour Party I want to see an equally aggressive campaign being mounted from the top of the party. Being nice will not get us elected, Cameron’s Tories need to be exposed and forced into a corner. As you are probably well aware mud does stick. For example, Working Families Tax Credit, has been a godsend to ordinary people, many people need this money and will have considerable problems without it. Education, Health, Transport will all feel the cold wind of the swinging axe. Lets mount a vigorous campaign to expose them tell people these are all in danger under the Tories.
    Tell the Labour Party to stop being nice and get nasty. The ordinary less privileged people of Britain need them more then ever at the moment.