Friday, June 1, 2007

The war and peace legacy

Being a columnist can be taxing. The relentless search for interesting topics to waffle on about is never ending. However, now and then, a week comes along where so much happens that it is difficult to decide where to start. The week starting May 7 was one such week.

In that week, the Northern Ireland peace process reached a decisive climax. Ian Paisley, of the DUP, and Martin McGuinness, of Sinn Fein, were sworn in as First and Deputy First Ministers of the Northern Ireland Assembly. The DUP, which had said that it would never sit down with Sinn Fein because it considers Sinn Fein a terrorist organisation because of its links with the Irish Republican Army, agreed to share power. In turn, Sinn Fein set aside the likelihood of a united Ireland, at least in the foreseeable future, and agreed to participate in a devolved administration within the UK.

If that was not enough, in the same week, Tony Blair took the plunge, which had been pending for months, and announced his resignation date – June 27. Of course, the two events are related. Blair chose the date for announcing his departure because it was close to the Northern Ireland deal. With his legacy literally bombed to pieces in Iraq, Blair was desperate to link his exit with something positive.

This is not to say he simply jumped on the Northern Ireland peace train at the last minute. He had played a significant role in it. He kept the peace process high on his agenda, more so than any other British Prime Minister. Shortly after coming to office, he agreed to face-to-face talks with Republicans in 1997. The last British Prime Minister to do that was Lloyd George, some time after World War I.

While Blair was waging war in the rest of the world, he visited Northern Ireland a remarkable 37 times to help ensure the peace. McGuinness, who, no doubt, still feels the British have a lot to answer for in Northern Ireland, was quoted in the Guardian earlier this year, saying: “Tony Blair and Iraq is almost like a total contradiction of Tony Blair and Ireland.”

So why the split personality? And why did he become Bush’s lackey over Iraq?

My theory is that, after nearly a decade in power, he became more concerned with his global legacy than bottom-up change. I am not sure if he even saw the full significance of Northern Ireland in his own backyard until it was all he had left.

The destruction of the Twin Towers gave him an opportunity to cement his place in history. He felt this was his Churchillian moment to be heralded a saviour of the so-called free world. He misguidedly backed the wrong horse.

In Africa, his record is mixed. He showed concern, calling the continent a “scar on the conscience of the world”. He set up the African Commission and pushed debt relief. This has had an impact; for example, debt relief in Mozambique meant half a million children were immunised.

Yet, as much as things moved under his premiership, they have also fallen short and poverty certainly ain’t history. The G8 committed itself under his leadership to a $5,4-billion increase in support to sub-Saharan Africa; since 2004, it has increased by $2,3-billion.

This is no small contribution, but it typifies his leadership style – a style emblematic of many politicians. He came to power with a populist mandate, but, over time, he lost the common touch. Blair is about vision over capability and rhetoric over delivery, and his biggest weakness is that he believes his own hype. Sometimes this pays off, as it did in Northern Ireland but, mostly, over time, it belly-flops. If you don’t believe me, just ask the average Iraqi, or next time you are in the Middle East, try to find your way with the so-called road map he helped broker.

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 1 June 2007 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.