Category: Archive

Echo Focus: Hain fellow well met

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

Peter Hain, after all, had blazed a trail through British political life for over thirty years — though not of more typical kind.
He had been a young radical, a ferocious opponent of apartheid in South Africa, even a proponent of a British troop withdrawal from the North.
And there was more grist for the press mill. Unusually, Hain was not going to have to ditch his existing portfolio.
He would remain Secretary of State for Murphy’s native Wales, a corner of the United Kingdom that has been pacified for centuries, but has yet managed to retain its language and distinct sense of place.
Nevertheless, Wales, a principality, does not require the kind of political combat training that Northern Ireland, a province according to unionist politicians, so often does.
It would be a fair to say that each potentially serves as a mighty relief from the other.
Peter Hain, in contrast to so many who have gone before him, might just have been handed the Yin and Yang of top flight British political life.
Hain, who is 55, was born in Nairobi, Kenya, to South African parents who were adamantly opposed to the apartheid regime. The family fled South Africa in the mid 1960s and settled in London.
The British capital was to be Hain’s political springboard, his first target the South Africa Springboks, the national rugby team and pride of the Afrikaner ruling elite.
In the ensuing years, Hain would man the barricades, literally and metaphorically, for a variety of political causes. He would so anger the South Africans that he was at one point framed by Pretoria’s national intelligence agency, BOSS, for a bank robbery he did not commit.
Hain’s formal political affiliation in his early campaigning years was with the British Liberal Party. In 1977 he joined Labor and was first elected to a Westminster seat in 1991.
Hain’s political starting point rests on the generally accepted principles of civil rights, equally available and equally distributed.
He was, not surprisingly, a staunch opponent of white minority rule in the former Rhodesia.
He was a pioneering supporter of Robert Mugabe and his mission to turn that country into a new Zimbabwe.
More recently, he has earned the enmity of Mugabe because he has advocated for the rights of evicted white farmers. Mugabe, without any apparent nod to itrony, has accused Hain of being a racist.
Northern Ireland and it culture of name calling should not, as such, cause Hain too many surprising moments, or even sleepless nights.
That doesn’t mean there won’t be any at all.
Hain wasn’t so much sleepless as a little jetlagged when he visited New York and Washington D.C. last week on a visit designed to present himself to Irish America and U.S. political leaders as London’s new man in Belfast, old man in Cardiff.
Hain’s North honeymoon was, not surprisingly, brief.
It well and truly ended after the arrest last month of Sean Kelly, one of the Shankill bombers. The PSNI accused Kelly of becoming “re-involved in terrorism.”
Kelly had been freed under the Good Friday agreement from nine life sentences imposed for his part in a 1993 IRA bombing on the Shankill Road.
Hain said he had authorized Kelly’s return to jail on the basis of security information.
He said he was satisfied that Kelly had become re-involved in terrorism and was “a danger to others and, while he is at liberty, is likely to commit further offences.”
Hain might have been happy with the nature of the information. But the fact that it was not made immediately public only heightened the critical reaction from republicans in general, and Sinn Fein in particular.
Hain’s initial assessment of his new job and the situation he now faces has been shaped in part by the Kelly arrest and by the time of the year. He’s facing into his first marching season in a place where the streets are paved with eggshells.
“It’s a little more tense than I thought it might be,” Hain said in an interview in New York last week.
Hain rejected the assertion of many critics of the Kelly arrest that he was merely throwing a sop to unionists and trying to deflect any accusations that his political record indicated an undue sympathy for the national and republican point of view.
“That was simply not the case. It was a difficult decision but I’m afraid it had to be done,” Hain said.
Kelly he said, had been given a very long sentence for what had been a particularly brutal bombing attack. He had been released under the Good Friday agreement at which point he was required to abide strictly by the terms of what is described as a prisoner’s license.
“Unfortunately he wasn’t (complying). But I hope he’s the only one, that this is a one off,” Hain said.
Hain was eager to point out that Kelly was the eleventh former prisoner to breach the terms of license since the agreement and that nine of them had been loyalist.
But, he said, he had received a “very clear report” from the PSNI that Kelly had been in breach of his license “in a pretty serious way.”
The arrest of Kelly, as such, was unavoidable.
“It was a serious decision and not one taken lightly,” said Hain. “It was not taken to balance up my supposedly republican past.”
The course of Kelly’s case, he said, would be determined by a pending report from the Independent Sentence Review Commission.
“The report will be sent to me, sooner rather than later I hope.
Hain said he was also hopeful with regard to the anticipated statement from the IRA.
Gerry Adams, he said, had shown a “lot of vision and courage” by his April statement calling on the IRA to take the next step.
Her expected the IRA response to be “pretty crucial.” But it also needed to be “credible and verifiable.”
“I don’t want to anticipate the exact statement but I am optimistic,” Hain said.
He added that Sinn Fein stood out as being a “very important partner” in what had been the bringing about of a unprecedented period of stability in Northern Ireland.
The U.S., too, had played a very positive role while the Irish and British government, he felt, were virtually “joined at the hip” at this point.
The statement after the recent intergovernmental conference, said Hain, showe shown a commonality of purpose that was extraordinary given the troubled history of Irish/British relations.
Hain is these days inclined to talk up economics and play down politics. The state of the northern Ireland economy was critical if progress was to be maintained.
Catholic unemployment, he said, was “hugely down.”
The North, he said, had to now see itself as being part of a fiercely competitive global economy.
The “old battles,” he said, simply did not have a place in this new world.
Northern Ireland, quite simply, would sink or swim economically, Hain added. There was, he said, a need for a “quantum leap” in the North’s economy.
Political progress was itself crucial in this context.
Hain is inclined to draw the best possible scenario from the current standoff between Sinn Fein and Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionists.
While the two strongest parties were also the two most polarized this raised the possibility that they were also the parties that could negotiate a deal that would stick.
There was just a need, he said, “to go the final mile.”

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