However, the raw numbers do not tell the full story of Blair’s commitment to resolving the continuing difficulties besetting the latest attempt to end the 35-year-old crisis.
Unlike the visits of his predecessors, Blair’s have often assumed the form of direct intervention at moments of impasse or crisis, undertaken in an effort to use the authority and prestige of his office to help move the situation forward. This has been especially the case since the last suspension of the Northern Ireland devolved assembly, in October 2002. Since then, Blair has thrown his weight into the scales on six separate occasions — roughly once every two months — as he tried to nudge the IRA in the direction that both Dublin and London have been urging it to go. Yet, after 18 months the impasse remains, and the question has emerged as to whether Blair is in danger of squandering both his own political influence and the prestige of the prime minister’s office.
As one close observer of the negotiations put it:
“The prime minister should not become involved in the process unless there is a deal on the table. Otherwise, it risks devaluing his authority.”
However, the feeling among the Blair’s advisers remains strongly in favor of his direct approach. Downing Street insists that without it, there would be no prospect of movement at all.
“Nobody moves in Northern Ireland unless they have to,” n experienced observer of the negotiations said.
If no other British prime minister since William Gladstone has been so committed to solving the Irish problem as Blair has been, it is because Blair, like Gladstone, came to office at the right time. An opportunity to settle the problem had presented itself beginning in 1994 with the IRA’s first unilateral ceasefire and when Blair took office three years later he seized it. Belfast became his first port of call after he won the June 1997 general election. He arrived on a mission to convince the IRA to renew its ceasefire (temporarily broken in February 1996) in terms that would not frighten the Unionists.
The days leading up to and following the signing of the Good Friday agreement set the pattern for Blair’s flying visits to Northern Ireland. In the wake of the signing, and as the referendum campaigns to sell the deal to Protestants got under way, Blair arrived at the University of Ulster in Coleraine in an effort to bolster Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimble. The pro-agreement Unionists were running a lackluster campaign, with the Democratic Unionist Party exploiting the many doubts that the Protestant community harbored in relation to the GFA.
Blair made “a pledge to the people of Northern Ireland” in which he promised, among other things, that “those who use or threaten violence [will be] excluded from the government of Northern Ireland.” Some six years later, it is this very issue of continued paramilitary activity, especially on the part of the IRA, that was left unresolved then, and that continues to draw Blair back into the Northern Irish cockpit in repeated attempts to resolve it.
A series of interventions began following the last suspension of Stormont in October 2002, after accusations that the IRA was running a spy ring. Within days, Blair was in Belfast delivering a speech, which, according to sources, was mainly his own work.
“But the crunch is the crunch,” he said at the city’s Harbor Commissioners Office on Oct. 20, referring to the continued activities of the IRA while Sinn Fein was in government. “There is no parallel track left. The fork in the road has finally come.” His prescription involved the paramilitaries engaging in “acts of completion” — that is, abolishing themselves.
The IRA did not move. In March 2003, he was back in the North for talks at Hillsborough Castle, which began another round of intensive meetings, involving the taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, and the pro-agreement parties. These culminated just over a year ago with the involvement of President Bush, who came to Northern Ireland to combine an Iraq war summit with applying maximum pressure on Irish republicans to begin their “act of completion” in time, it was hoped, to allow London to schedule new elections for devolved government. In a joint statement the three leaders said that “there can be no place in Northern Ireland for paramilitary activity and capability.” They demanded that “the break with paramilitarism in all its past forms must be complete and irrevocable.”
Rumors flew thick and fast that the IRA was about to move. Surely, it was argued, Blair would not have brought in Bush, putting the president’s prestige upon the line, without some basis for believing that the IRA was ready to disband. Yet nothing happened. Bush came and went. Blair returned to London. The elections were postponed. The IRA meanwhile, was accused of kidnapping and murdering a republican dissident within weeks of the summit.
Two subsequent dramatic interventions by Blair, on Oct. 21 2003 (a year after his “acts of completion” speech) and March 23 this year, came and went with no apparent response from the IRA.
One Belfast observer who is close to the talks called the situation as being like a “mixture of Beckett plays — ‘Waiting for Godot’ and ‘Endgame.’ ” Meanwhile, the Northern Ireland government remains on ice indefinitely, moderate unionism has crumbled, and there is still no sign of the paramilitaries going away.
However, Downing Street remains adamant that the strategy is working. According to this view, Blair has set the agenda, so the Provisionals know what they must do. The message has gotten through to Washington and Dublin, it stresses.
“Unless you push, nothing will happen,” one London insider said. “We have squared off the escape routes. Wait and see.” A new deadline has been set for June, around which time no doubt we can expect yet another dramatic visit from the British prime minister.