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Is there a problem with Peter Hain? Some people seem to think so, but are they right? June 30, 2006

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Irish Politics, Northern Ireland, Uncategorized.

Almost Sober



A thought provoking paper in Irish Political Studies, Vol. 21, Number 2, June 2006. This is by Paul Dixon, Senior lecturer in Politics at Kingston University. Entitled “Peter Hain, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland: Valuing the Union?” it has an interesting overview of the Secretary of State’s views and career, and winds up by proposing that Hain is ‘the most partisan Secretary of State for Northern Ireland appointed since the post was established in 1972’.

To back up this somewhat contentious assertion he notes that Hain who was born in Naiorobi and brought up in South Africa before he left for England in 1966 was strongly anti-apartheid. As a student and after he became heavily involved in the campaign in the UK. He was also a founder of the Anti-Nazi League, and Dixon considers it possible that the South African security services may have framed him for a robbery in 1975. Hain, like much of the British liberal-left bought into a Bennite attitude to the North which framed it in purely colonial terms. Hain had an fascinating trajectory from President of the Young Liberals to Labour. During the 1970s and 1980s he was involved in the Troops Out Movement.

During the 1980s he was a public speaker calling for unilateral withdrawal by the UK. Although as time went on this was modified to a degree and it’s interesting to note as early as 1981 he was against immediate withdrawal due to the risk of civil war… Dixon makes great play of the fact that this put him at odds with the principle of consent enshrined in the GFA, and indeed it did. However, again he was similar to much of the Labour left in that belief – and I seem to recall that John Reid, a predecessor of his was a former member of the CPGB, which took a pretty hard line on Northern Ireland too.

He was vice-chair of ‘Time to Go’ in 1988…but this fizzled out in the face of Labour indifference. As we move into the 1990s Dixon considers that Hain was paralleling the Sinn Fein line in terms of thinking, so as SF began to modify it’s arguments so did Hain, conceding that an agreed North was necessary. Perhaps…Dixon uses an incident in 1996 where Hain’s greetings were sent to the SF Ard Fheis, mistakenly according to Hain, to indicate that Hain had very strong pro-SF sympathies at a time when the ceasefire broke down. Indeed he considers that Hain’s unwillingness to address this issue ten years later in a radio interview (the transcript actually indicates that Hain says such an accusation is ‘wrong’) is indicative of…well something or another. In 1996 Hain apparently had a ‘chance’ meeting with some SF politicians on their way to meet Ken Livingstone, Jeremy Corbyn and others in Labour who have taken a fairly strong pro-Republican/Nationalist line. Again Hain denies any intent to meet the SF reps, and the Labour party who investigated the incident accepted his explanation. Now, I feel that there’s a degree of reaching going on here, because surely had he wanted to meet them openly he easily could have. But anyway…

Dixon considers the time between 1995 and 2005 a time when Hain accepted party discipline and made no statements on Northern Ireland. Now, I might interpret that as a period where Hain might have developed his thinking, but no…again a different interpretation is put upon what he did say. So for example when Hain says the IRA was ‘responsible for horrendous acts of terrorism and assassination…’ but goes on to say ‘it is essential to tie those who want to give up violence into a position where it is virtually impossible for them to go back. They need to be locked into a political process which gives them the opportunity to achieve at least part of their objectives. At the same time governments need to be very clear in their own minds about their own basic principles and what their bottom line is…’ he’s not really applauded for his quite reasonable analysis.

Indeed Dixon goes on to say that in other statements a ‘Republican analysis was again apparent’ as when Hain said that it was ‘the Protestant majority in the North ruling oppressively in a devolved administration and denying the Catholic minority basic human rights which it felt could therefore only be achieved by reunification with the independent Irish state in the South, an object which some nationalists pursued by terrorism’. Now, perhaps I’m misinterpreting what Hain is saying here, but it seems to me no more than the analysis which both the Irish and British governments have bought into, and indeed one which the SDLP would entirely agree with. So the ‘Republican’ provenance is difficult to ascertain.

Then we move onto his work on trying to solve the Gibralter issue, with that arch-Republican Jack Straw, where the idea of joint authority was mooted and later criticised in a Foreign Affairs Committee. This floating of joint authority is seen as yet further evidence of his partisanship and unsuitability for the job.

Finally in his dealings as Secretary of State Dixon provides a litany of incidents where Unionists have been ‘angered by his pro-republican sympathies’ (generally rhetorical comments such as stating that Britains role in Ireland had been ‘nefarious’, unusual from a British Secretary of State, but from a government which had already apologised for the Famine hardly the most radical of statements), his statement that Adams had shown ‘a lot of political guts’, hardly revelatory, and an inconsistency in his attitude to ‘terrorism’ since Hain has distinguished between Al-Qaeda and PIRA (something incidentally that Tony Blair did as well) but also noted that ‘terrorism is terrorism whether it was…in Belfast…or Islamic fundamentalists in London’.

And yet, and yet…so what?

A couple of thoughts along the way. It’s not unreasonable to suppose that the experience Hain had in South Africa was such that it might have given him a certain sympathy for Nationalists and Republicans. Indeed Dixon notes as much. This might well have given a certain impetus to his political development. But that has also seen a change, and development if you will from the certainties of the ‘Troops Out’ era to the more emollient post Good Friday Agreement period.

Dixons final three explanations for the appointment of Hain are that “Sinn Fein may have negotiated the appointment of Hain as part of the stand-down of the IRA”, or that it was a “deliberate tactical move by the British Prime Minister to put pressure on Unionists to negotiate seriously” or finally, and most unlikely to me, that “it was a blunder and the Prime Minister had not intended to appoint someone with such a partisan record”. This latter thesis he seeks to validate by noting that ‘[Blair] had made mistakes before…at the time of Hain’s appointment in May 2005, Blair forgot to appoint a Women’s Minister’. Well…perhaps. Or perhaps not. It’s difficult to envisage any set of circumstances where a Minister for that particular post would not have a full security vetting, would have a CV delivered to the PM detailing everything he had done in the past, and that Blair would be fully appraised of just who he was getting – quite apart from the fact that he and Hain had been colleagues and modernisers over a long period of time.

But let’s go a step further. Dixon seems to propose that Hain, in and of himself, is a liabilty at negotiating a settlement and that he “inhibits attempts to negotiate a stable, devolved settlement”, and yet supplies no proof of this contention. Quite the opposite. He actually notes that the DUP has made little of Hain’s past and SF has been openly contemptuous of him.

If I have a problem with the central thesis of the paper it is this, it partially reflects a viewpoint that is troubled not by the fact that Hain has (had) views, or that these have evidently developed, but that he has the wrong sort of views.

How else to explain the trawl through his history, or to disregard Hain’s later comments that ‘the world has changed’. How else to explain away that Dixon accepts the fact that previous Labour Ministers have titled towards a Nationalist view while Conservative Ministers have tilted towards an Unionist view – surely de facto partisanship. How else to also explain away the fact that Hain has in turn annoyed both the DUP and SF for various reasons.

Could it simply be, and I’m not ascribing this view to Dixon, but more to some who might believe he is at least partially correct, that this Minister represents (and this is important because it may well be a straw in the wind for the future relations between the two islands) a post- 1969, and post 1998 consensus, that could be influenced by Republicanism without necessarily being subsumed by it – one that sees the future in termed of joint sovereignty, an equality of approach to both communities, that tries to shift the question beyond the traditional winner-takes-all end games of both Unionism and Republicanism into an area which is about the sharing of political power and a recognition of diverse identities which all have to be recognised?

Or is it that one can, entirely justifiably in my opinion, be a Unionist and seek to uphold the Union, but that to be a Republican, or even to be influenced in part by a Republican analyses and also believe in a peaceful solution to the issues (which in fairness is what Hain did even at the height of his ‘Troops Out’ days), is somehow to be beyond the political pale?


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