Hain on the wain

  • 22 September 2005
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Peter Hain's first 100 days in office have been noteworthy for political inaction and a seemingly indecent haste to leave Northern Ireland and return to Westminster. He has managed to anger both unionists and republicans. Recent weeks have been his most testing. Colm Heatley assesses his performance to date

As political honeymoons go it was short and not so sweet. Within weeks of Peter Hain taking over as the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in May his background as a former "troops out" campaigner and advocate of a United Ireland provoked unionist fury.

Fast-forward to June 2005 and it was republican anger being directed at Peter Hain because of his decision to send Shankill Bomber, Sean Kelly, back to prison for his alleged re-involvement in terrorism.

Peter Hain is a political butterfly, he started life as an anti-apartheid campaigner, became leader of the young liberals, marched with the "troops out movement" then joined the Labour Party where he aligned himself with the left wing, but later sided with the New Labourites.

With a political career which includes stints as an anti-apartheid campaigner, anti-Nazi league founder and 'Troops Out' advocate he is certainly the most unlikely Secretary of State the North has had in recent years.

However, while he has attracted the almost obligatory cross-party criticism from Northern Ireland's politicians, Hain's first 100 days in office have been noteworthy for political inaction and his seemingly indecent haste to leave Northern Ireland and return to Westminster.

The last week though has been his most difficult, the aftermath of the loyalist violence and unionist calls for political action have challenged his political leadership and judgment.

That was compounded by criticism from Conservative MP Michael Ancram, and shadow Northern Ireland Spokesman, who this week said Hain's past rendered him totally, and understandably, unacceptable to unionists.

On Tuesday 20 September Hain took to the streets and walked through the loyalist Old Warren Estate in Lisburn, Co Antrim, the carefully coiffured hair and cultivated perma-tan standing out incongruously from the drab settings.

It was a rare foray onto the ground for a Secretary of State who has spent just three days in Northern Ireland since the start of August, the rest of the time he has spent holidaying or in London.

Following meetings with the UUP and DUP, Hain announced on Wednesday a series of measures designed to alleviate social deprivation in loyalist areas, he also warned loyalists that violence would not be tolerated.

Though last week, as Northern Ireland was still reeling from a week of violence, he found time to write an article for The Observer newspaper in England, focusing solely on the future of the Liberal Democrats.

His continued penmanship for the British broadsheets, almost exclusively on political events at Westminster, betrays an eagerness to return there, the heart of the political action for any aspiring British Labour politician.

Most of his media interviews are conducted from the studios at Westminster, not Stormont.

His appointment as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, or Siberia as Margaret Thatcher liked to call it, is a demotion, especially for Hain who has high political ambitions.

This time last year he was Leader of the House of Commons, a stratosphere above his current post in terms of political profile and influence.

However, a series of political gaffes in Westminster, the first calling for the rich to pay more taxes (a cardinal sin for a New Labour politician), then a misguided comment urging a referendum on Europe, earned him a first-class ticket to Belfast International airport.

Since then, perhaps learning the maxim that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, he has become a man of few words or deeds in Northern Ireland.

As the UVF feud with the LVF raged in Belfast over the summer, leaving four Protestant men dead since the start of July, Peter Hain refused to be "rushed" into making a judgement call on the UVF ceasefire.

"All ceasefires are constantly kept under review," became his department's mantra over the summer when asked about the UVF ceasefire. It wasn't until last week, when the UVF began shooting and bombing the British Army and police, that Hain finally acted and declared the ceasefire over.

Even then he remained silent on the UDA's ceasefire, despite their involvement in last week's violence and their ongoing campaign of intimidation against the Sunday World newspaper.

This week the UDA, the largest paramilitary group in the North, posed a new challenge, perhaps emboldened by Hain's refusal to impose sanctions on them, when they said they would "not stand by" while Protestant communities were "oppressed".

It remains to be seen how he will deal with the UDA in the coming weeks and months.

The political parties in Northern Ireland have little faith in Hain. The DUP's East Antrim MP Sammy Wilson, perhaps predictably, describes him as having "communist baggage".

The SDLP's Alex Atwood gives him "three out of ten for his performance", while the UUP's leader Sir Reg Empey said "he has lost the confidence of the unionist people".

The event that has framed Hain's first 100 days in office was his decision to send the Shankill Bomber, Sean Kelly, back to prison for "re-involvement in terrorism" in June. Unionists were delighted, republicans furious.

Hain was accused of making the decision to placate unionists who had criticised his political past.

To Unionists Sean Kelly is a mass murderer who served only a fraction of the nine life sentences imposed upon him for his direct role in planting a bomb in the Shankill Road fish shop in 1993 which killed nine innocent Protestants.

However, the decision infuriated republicans, who claimed that not only was Kelly innocent, and a force for stability in Ardoyne, but that his detention would seriously damage the chances of achieving a definitive statement from the IRA pledging to dump arms.

In the run-up to the IRA's July statement it became increasingly clear that Kelly would be released following political pressure from Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, who argued the IRA statement couldn't be made with Kelly behind bars.

Sean Kelly was released on 27 July, to the fury of unionists, who accuse Hain of subverting the justice system for political ends.

The Kelly debacle has cast a shadow over Hain's political decision-making from both unionist and nationalist perspectives.

In reality though Hain is a figurehead, a facilitator for the North, the real power and decision-making abilities rest with Tony Blair and his chief of staff, Johnathon Powell who maintains regular contact with the Northern Ireland's political leaders.

Hain's predecessors have been many and varied, he is the fifth Secretary of State in the past eight years, though he has arrived during an era, when for the first time, the political initiatives of the Northern Ireland's political parties threaten to render the old certainties redundant.

If the current political process in the North develops according to plan he could well be the last, but for the meantime his report card might read "must pay more attention and attend more often".p