Blair: British Prime Minister 1997-2007. By keeping Britain out of the Euro, by improving public transport, helping oust Saddan, fighting the Taliban and helping London win the 2012 Olympics, Blair has shown what a great Prime Minister he has been. But perhaps his greatest legacy is helping to bring peace to Northern Ireland.

The Times

16th October 2006

THIS WEEK’S New Scientist contains a compelling if slightly humiliating review of what the world would be like if the whole of humanity were “transported to a re-education camp in a far-off galaxy”. Not only would the Earth be “a safer place for biodiversity”, but before long our absence would scarcely be noticed. “All things considered, it will take only a few tens of thousands of years before almost every trace of our present dominance has vanished completely. Alien visitors 100,000 years hence will find no obvious sign that an advanced civilisation ever lived here.” After that, doing the gardening seems scarcely worth the effort.

Politicians, on the other hand, are obsessed by the fear that no one will notice that they were ever there a few years after their departure. Sometimes their concern is understandable. I suspect that if Sir John Major is remembered in 30 years’ time it will be as an answer in a pub quiz to the question: “Who was the Prime Minister between Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair?”

Yet his was the third longest continuous tenure in Downing Street since the First World War. Harold Wilson, who spent more time in No 10 than Sir John, though in two spells, is unknown to most people under the age of 30. Fate can be unforgiving to the most prominent of politicians. So much for their quest for a legacy.

Mr Blair is on the brink of finding his quest is not quite what he expected. It will not be the euro, the transformation of the public services or even the 2012 Olympics. Nor, mercifully, will history recall him as a man who won three general elections and took his country into at least that many conflicts. No, his bequest will be to Ulster.

To some, that might seem a modest return for almost a decade in office. I think this understates the achievement. The British have had an Irish problem — or, more accurately, the Irish have had a British problem — for more than eight centuries. It has been a running sore from the moment in 1170 when the Earl of Pembroke and an exiled self-styled King of Leinster landed at a rocky headland called Baginbun, near Waterford, at the head of an expeditionary force that beat off advancing Irish warriors by driving a herd of cattle at them.

A deal that would ensure peace and justice has defied kings and statesmen ever since. Yet now, in the aftermath of the St Andrews deliberations, that noble aspiration has almost been secured.
What, it is reasonable to ask after so long, is different this time? Could the Rev Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness become the most improbable of political partners?

There are three reasons why the “impossible bargain” really can be reached.

The first is that these negotiations have been between the only two parties that matter. In retrospect, all of David Trimble’s heroic efforts were doomed to fail. At best, the most that he could muster was 55 to 60 per cent of the Unionist community. Any understanding with Sinn Fein that was opposed by Mr Paisley and his Democratic Unionists was too feeble a creature to survive miscalculations, mistakes or misfortunes.

Furthermore, until it had to do business with the DUP, there was never the incentive needed for the IRA to decommission its arsenal and then its organisation. Much as an Israel-Palestinian accord would be incredible if it did not have the blessing of Ariel Sharon, no peace process in Ulster could prosper without the imprimatur of Mr Paisley. If he reaches an accommodation with the republican movement, it will stick.

Secondly, the core area of disagreement between the DUP and Sinn Fein has been eliminated. It was not many months ago that the DUP leadership was claiming, in much the same spirit as those who insist that the Moon landings were faked, that the IRA had not placed its arms beyond use and was behaving much as it had always done.

After the unimpeachable report by the Independent Monitoring Commission on the IRA, Mr Paisley and his supporters have little alternative but to take yes for an answer. Gerry Adams declared on Friday that republicans had delivered on their commitments “big time” of late and he is right. The last demand of the DUP is that Sinn Fein embraces the Police Service of Northern Ireland. This will not be impossible for it.
Finally, there is no more advantage for either side in playing for time. All that more prevarication will do is entrench a form of direct rule in which Dublin can exercise a special influence. Decisions on domestic politics will be taken by ministers of the Crown in consultation with their Irish counterparts. Delay would also mean waiting for a successor to Mr Blair to settle in and possibly a replacement for Bertie Ahern, his Irish counterpart, as well.

That does not suit either the DUP or Sinn Fein. It is no coincidence that the serious haggling in Scotland last week was not about policing, but grammar schools, the rateable value of property, water charges and the status of the Irish language. The DUP and Sinn Fein are already preparing themselves for coalition politics in a Stormont Assembly and its Executive. At some point in the first half of 2007 those institutions will return as stable entities.

And that would not have been possible without the Prime Minister. It has taken his personal commitment and the constitutional changes he pioneered in the rest of the United Kingdom to make the notion of devolution in Northern Ireland appear to be the natural norm, not the eccentric exception that it once would have been. It is a challenge that has obliged Mr Blair to turn from the “big picture” at which he excels to the small brushwork required to convince those involved in Europe’s longest political dispute to compromise with each other. They are almost there and he could have no more worthwhile legacy.