The names of British prime ministers appear in what many would argue is notorious abundance throughout the pages of Irish history.
Though she was in infrequent visitor, Thatcher’s shadow looms large over Ireland, and in circumstances as starkly varied as the hunger strikes and the Anglo Irish agreement.
Gladstone, Lloyd George, Churchill are all names that slot easily into the Irish frame.
Harold Wilson sent British troops into the streets of Belfast and Derry. Ted Heath will not be forgotten for the reason alone that he was in office on Bloody Sunday.
John Major was often criticized for being a bit gray and lackluster but his name crops up repeatedly in the early peace process.
But Major would not ultimately lay claim to the grand prize of presiding over a workable and working devolved government at Stormont.
That triumph, no small one indeed, was to end up on Tony Blair’s resume.
No wonder then that, with his time as Britain’s leader coming to an end this week, President Bush has reportedly been on the phone suggesting that Blair might want to apply his keen mind and verbal acumen to the Middle East morass as a peace envoy.
Blair, as of today an ex-prime minister, has traveled extensively around the glove during his ten years at Britain’s helm.
It is worth noting in this regard that after securing his first general election victory, the first place he visited beyond the shores of Britain was Northern Ireland. The date was May 16, 1997 and the venue was the relatively sublime Royal Ulster Agricultural Show in Balmoral, on the south side of Belfast.
Outside Balmoral, not all that distant from the prize bulls and bails of hay, things were not going well. The peace process had hit a wall.
The IRA’s first ceasefire had ended but, by this stage of the on and off peace process, the republican leadership was looking firmly beyond the bomb and the bullet. But they would need help from the new man in Downing Street.
Blair was the first of his party to win a general election since 1974 but despite years of unpopular Conservative Party rule, this did not necessarily mean that republicans would embrace Blair and his party with unqualified enthusiasm.
As it turned out, Tony Blair had a knack for generating enough of it himself to entice a positive response. He was also prepared to take risks.
From the start, Blair had to convince the IRA to return to its former ceasefire. The second was to do keep unionism close even as he offered an olive branch to republicans.
He succeeded by promising that Sinn Fein would be made part of an inclusive talks process if IRA violence was brought to an end. He kept the Unionists from bolting by declaring that he cherished the Union between Britain and Northern Ireland, assuring his Balmoral audience that no one of their generation would live to see a United Ireland.
An Irish government official summed up the Balmoral speech thus: “There a bit in it for everyone,” he said.
And, as it turned out, there was also just enough in it for everyone.
Within a few weeks, the IRA declared another cease-fire, and not long after that Sinn Fein was deep in talks. Critically, the unionists did not bolt.
Tony Blair’s Irish legacy had survived its birth.
That legacy was not to be based entirely on Blair’s dealing with the contemporary politics of the North, however.
There was always a sense on the island in general that Blair was a sympathetic figure. This was in large part due to his wife Cheri Booth, a Catholic and whose family had strong Irish connections via Liverpool and the fact that his mother had been born in Donegal.
It might have been unavoidable no matter who the prime minister was in 1997 but as Ireland marked the 150th anniversary of the Great Hunger and in particular the year known to history as “Black ’47, Tony Blair stepped up and delivered what was seen as an apology, or near apology, for British behavior during the famine.
Blair’s mea culpa, delivered just a couple of weeks into his premiership, was in a letter read to a famine commemoration event in Millstreet, County Cork.
“That one million people should have died in what was then part of the richest and most powerful nation in the world is something that that still causes pain as we reflect on it today,” Blair wrote.
“Those who governed in London at the time failed their people through standing by while a crop failure turned into a massive human tragedy.”
It wasn’t quite enough for some but Blair’s words were enough to obliterate years of official British self-denial and seeming indifference to an event that had changed Ireland beyond recognition.
“The overwhelming part of Tony Blair’s Irish legacy will be positive,” Dr. Maurice Manning, president of Ireland’s Human Rights Commission and formerly o the Department of Politics at University College Dublin said.
“He put Ireland at the top of his agenda an stuck with it and this despite the fact that there were no great kudos for him in Britain where Northern Ireland was not a popular issue. Really, a comparison with Gladstone is not an exaggeration,” said Manning of Blair.
“Of course, his relationship with Bertie Ahern became hugely important. At the same time he was building on the work of John Major whose work should not be underestimated,” Manning added.
At the same, according to Manning, Blair’s policy of dealing with the far opposite wings of Northern Ireland politics did come at a price, that being a squeeze on the political middle ground.
Manning says that the work of bringing peace and ultimately restored devolved government, while in large part due to Blair and Ahern, also depended heavily on the work of government officials who came up with often very imaginative ideas.
But Blair, he said, had been the perfect political salesman for all this creativity.
Tony Blair exits stage left this week. Some of his party colleagues might joke that it’s not left enough. But Blair, a close friend and ally of both presidents Clinton and Bush, will assuredly go down in history as more pragmatist than ideologist, and, in purely Irish terms, the top award winner in a line of prime ministers whose terms of office were characterized by less than full regard for “John Bull’s Other Island.”