A leading DUP politician has spoken up in defence of Tony Blair’s role in the peace process, despite having harboured deep misgivings about the power-sharing arrangements which he had helped to broker.
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, DUP MP for Lagan Valley, said that Northern Ireland should “not lose sight of the contribution” which the former prime minister made to Northern Ireland, as his legacy came under heavy fire following this week’s publication of the Chilcot Report into the Iraq War.
Mr Donaldson, the Province’s longest-sitting MP, was speaking on the BBC’s Nolan Show yesterday morning.
As a senior UUP figure, Mr Donaldson had walked out of negotiations ahead of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement.
He remained in the party afterwards but was dissatisfied with the deal – which was made possible in large part by the strong support of Tony Blair and his senior colleagues.
Mr Donaldson left the UUP in 2003 and went on to join Ian Paisley’s DUP, which had campaigned vociferously against the Good Friday Agreement.
Whilst Mr Donaldson said yesterday that he regretted backing Mr Blair in his drive to invade Iraq, he said that “we should not lose sight in Northern Ireland [of the fact] that Tony Blair was instrumental in the peace process – and I saw this first hand in 1997/98 and on”.
He added: “He was very much in the lead on the UK Government side in terms of taking the peace process forward and spoke passionately about his opposition to terrorism and ending terrorism in Northern Ireland.
“But I did learn this about him – he has a very clever use of words ... it became known as ‘spin’ in the Tony Blair era.”
Referring to the DUP, former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey said last night: “All those people who were outside roaring and shouting at the time of the Belfast agreement are doing very well as a result of it.”
Between 1998 and 2003, Mr Donaldson had been a leading voice of dissent in the UUP, said Lord Empey.
While the DUP is overwhelmingly the biggest party in the Province today, Lord Empey said that without the Good Friday Agreement, “there wouldn’t be any Assembly for them to sit in, they wouldn’t be in any ministerial cars, they wouldn’t be in jobs”.
He added: “The fact is they have embraced it and benefited from it, so the objections to it clearly cannot have been rooted too deeply in principle.”
Both the UUP and DUP had backed the Iraq War at the time it was launched.
When it comes to the Chilcot Report – which this week criticised Mr Blair’s government for failing to exhaust peaceful options before unleashing the invasion – Lord Empey said: “Yes, Tony Blair made a contribution [to Northern Ireland].
“I don’t dispute that for one minute.
“But when we come to the war issues, parliament voted on the basis of the information that was provided ....
“It was on the basis of misinformation.”
On the subject of the Iraq war itself, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson told the BBC that “back then MPs had very limited access to information”, and they had to “rely heavily” on the information the prime minister himself provided.
He said the impression given at the time was that it was “very clear” that intelligence available to the government provided the justification for an invasion.
Asked if he regretted voting to go to war, Mr Donaldson said: “Of course. It was not an easy decision.”
He added: “I think this report does raise serious questions about the reasons that were given to our armed forces.”
When he voted in favour of sending in the troops, he did so knowing that his own brother was camped on the Kuwait/Iraq border awaiting orders to begin the invasion.