Declassified files: Tony Blair had little interest in Northern Ireland prior to becoming prime minister, Irish officials were told

The last day of our coverage of the recently released government papers reveals some of the thinking on Northern Ireland of the then newly elected Labour Party of 1997:

Monday, 3rd January 2022, 6:50 am
Updated Monday, 3rd January 2022, 6:58 am
Prime Minister Tony Blair speaking at the University of Ulster in May 1998, arguing his case for the Yes vote in the Belfast Agreement referendum.  Irish officials were told that only a few years before then he had devoted little time to Northern Ireland
Prime Minister Tony Blair speaking at the University of Ulster in May 1998, arguing his case for the Yes vote in the Belfast Agreement referendum. Irish officials were told that only a few years before then he had devoted little time to Northern Ireland

Tony Blair, who brokered the Good Friday Agreement that helped bring an end to the Troubles, had “devoted little of his time or energy” to Northern Ireland even as late as 1995, Irish officials were told.

That insight came as Irish officials and diplomats sought to cultivate contacts in the Labour Party and help shape the policy of any future Blair administration.

From a series of communiques between London and Dublin, it appears that Irish officials had a particularly strong relationship with Jonathan Powell, who would become Chief of Staff in Downing Street under Mr Blair.

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Kate Hoey, the Ulster-born minister for sport seen in 1999. Irish officials had been promised before Labour came into power that any job for Ms Hoey in a future Labour government would have no connection to Northern Ireland

In a record of a meeting between Irish diplomat Philip McDonagh and Mr Powell in October 1995, the Blair adviser admits that “Tony Blair has devoted little of his time and energy to Northern Ireland.

“Even after the recent trip to Dublin and Northern Ireland, Mo Mowlam and Powell himself had to spend some time explaining to Blair how the principle of self-determination operates in the framework provided by the Downing Street Declaration,” the Irish diplomat wrote.

That meeting, Mr McDonagh notes, took place in a fashionable London restaurant described as a “phenomenon”.

“You descend, accompanied by your black-clad psychagogue, to a cathedral-like space full of mirrors, square shapes, and primary colours. The word glitz is brought quickly to mind.”

Mr Powell tells Mr McDonagh that a Labour government would be welcomed from an Irish perspective.

“Reflecting a little further, Powell said that Labour’s instincts would be more nationalist that those of the Conservative Party, but that this very fact might oblige Labour to be circumspect and, in some instances, to lean in the opposite direction.

“At the same time, Labour would be much more relaxed about a role for the American Government than are the Conservatives.”

Mr McDonagh also writes that staff in Mr Blair’s office are “mystified by Blair’s open profession of Christianity, including the evangelical tone of his speech to the Labour Party Conference”.

He also promises that any job for Kate Hoey, the Antrim-born Labour MP, in a future Labour government, would have no connection to Northern Ireland.

A few weeks earlier, Irish officials had attended the Labour Party conference in Brighton and spoke highly of Northern Ireland spokesperson and future Secretary of State, Mo Mowlam.

At that conference, Mr Blair had said in his keynote speech: “I will not play political games with the peace process in Northern Ireland. The peace is too important for that.”

In a note on the conference to Dublin, Mr McDonagh said that Mr Powell had said that the Labour leader’s “personal instinct” had been not to reference Northern Ireland but he had been convinced otherwise by his advisers.

At the conference, diplomats noted that the influence of the SDLP appeared to have waned, becoming “hardly greater than that of Sinn Fein”.

Overall, they believed that Labour policy on Northern Ireland had “undergone a modestly significant development in the course of the party conference. Underlying this is a greater personal self-confidence on the part of Mo Mowlam in her role as spokesperson.

“The hands of a future Labour government remain free.”

“It can be said that the efforts of the embassy have contributed to the shift in the centre of gravity of Labour’s Irish policy.”

Those links to the Labour Party continued as it drew closer to the 1997 election that would sweep Labour to power.

In January 1996, Mr McDonagh was a guest of Ms Mowlam in one of the bars in the Palace of Westminster and attended a “drinks party” with her the following night at the Red Lion pub.

After that meeting, Mr McDonagh wrote: “Mowlam expressed concern to me that she has still not overcome the handicap in Nationalist eyes that she is, ‘not Kevin McNamara’.

“She fears that this will count against the Labour Party in what she described as, ‘Catholic constituencies’.”

Kevin McNamara was a strong advocate for Irish nationalism as a Labour MP, before being demoted from the role of shadow secretary of state for Northern Ireland when Mr Blair was elected leader.

Mr McDonagh met with Mr Powell again in December 1996, five months before the 1997 election.

At that meeting, the Irish official was told: “Tony Blair has been reading in the history of the Gladstone era with a view both to Northern Ireland and to Scottish and Welsh devolution.

“Blair’s main conclusion is that consent is vital for constitutional change. It is not enough to win parliamentary victories if a minority remains deeply unsatisfied.”

“Powell asked me whether my emphasis on the existence of two communities in Northern Ireland might ultimately make it more difficult for Northern Ireland to become integrated with the Republic – which Powell saw as the most logical long-term development.”

“I said that even in the long term, and under a benign scenario from a Nationalist point of view, we would be anxious to accommodate the Unionist identity.”

Mr Powell admitted that Labour would need to prove its credentials with unionists, who he said would “suspect rightly” that Labour would be less favourable to them than the Conservative Party.

That meeting also offered a early glimpse into Mr Blair’s relationships with key figures in the peace process.

Of Ulster Unionist Party leader, David Trimble, Mr Powell said that there were questions about his judgment since the serious violence that summer at Drumcree, which saw clashes over an Orange Order parade through the nationalist Garvaghy Road area in Portadown.

Of John Hume, the SDLP leader, McDonagh said: “Powell remarked that the chemistry is wrong and that the two men seem to belong to different cultures”.

The Irish official noted: “It is probably right to conclude that the Labour leadership has in recent weeks become more comfortable about admitting to different feelings about Ireland than the Conservatives while, of course, maintaining bipartisanship on practical political grounds”

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