Weighing an apostate's fate

  • 29 November 2006
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In the 1970s Peter Hain was the charismatic hero of the anti-apartheid campaign. In 2006, the North's secretary of state has morphed into an ambitious Blairite with his eye on the prize – the Labour leadership. By Colin Murphy


Peter Hain was charismatic 30 years ago. Aged just 20, he was the leading anti-apartheid campaigner against the Springboks rugby tour of Britain and Ireland in 1970. He also managed subsequently to have a South African cricket tour stopped. In 1975 he was framed by the South African security services for a bank robbery in London. He was charged, tried at the Old Bailey and acquitted. He was a target then because of his radicalism and courage. It could hardly have been envisaged then that he would morph into what is nowadays known as a Blairite, a political species not noticeably different to a Thatcherite.

His earlier background seemed to destine him to rebellion: at the age of 10 he woke up in the middle of the night to be told his parents were being jailed for putting up anti-government posters in South Africa. Security police were ravaging through his personal belongings.

He said of those years in South Africa: “From a very early age, I realised that my upbringing was very different to that of my school friends. They had black servants. We had black friends. And of course their families had quite normal South African privileged lives, whereas we normally struggled.”

 He was born in Nairobi, Kenya, in 1950, to South African parents. Because of the hostility directed by the South African security services against them for their anti-apartheid activities, the family emigrated to London in 1966, when Hain was age 16.

In 1991, he was elected Labour MP for the Welsh constituency of Neath and has been re-elected in each election since, although his vote has dropped sharply (from 76 per cent in 1997 to 53 per cent last year).

He is interested in sport – motor racing and football mainly. His entry in the register of members' interests at the House of Commons records regular attendance at Grand Prix events at Silverstone and Monaco (at the invitation of the organisers), and “accepting hospitality from Sky Sports to attend Chelsea home matches”. He has been criticised for using a government-chartered plane, at a cost of £11,000, to fly to Dublin for a rugby international and to Sligo for two motor-racing events.

He joined government as a junior minister following Labour's victory in 1997. He joined the cabinet in 2002, as secretary of state for Wales, added the position of leader of the House of Commons in 2003, and in 2005 was appointed secretary of state for Northern Ireland.

Hain describes himself as a “libertarian socialist”. John Pilger describes him as an “ambitious apostate” and has recently called for Hain, and others, to be charged as “accomplices” for crimes against humanity in Iraq.

He has been involved in the recent efforts to have the powersharing institutions restored in Northern Ireland. He had been adamant that if everything wasn't agreed by 24 November that was it, the Northern Ireland Assembly would be dissolved. Instead there has been the inevitable fudge followed by the predictable procrastination, plus Ian Paisley's uncharacterised flip-flops: yes to powersharing with Sinn Féin, no to powersharing with Sinn Féin, perhaps to powersharing with Sinn Féin.

It is not clear how central Peter Hain has been in getting Paisley back on side or whether this has been the doings of Tony Blair, his chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, and, possibly, Bertie Ahern. But it is clear he was central to a sideshow that could prove a serious embarrassment.

In an appeasement gesture to the DUP he appointed a DUP favourite Bertha McDougall, widow of a murdered RUC officer, as the North's interim Victims' Commissioner. This appointment was challenged by Brenda Downes, the widow of a west-Belfast man killed by a plastic bullet fired by the RUC. Brenda Downes was informed by the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) that Bertha McDougall was appointed interim Victims' Commissioner because she was the best candidate for the job – the implication being that others had applied as well, but she was the only candidate.

On top of that it emerges that a High Court judge, Brian Girvan, was misled by Hain and senior Northern Ireland Office officials about the circumstances surrounding Bertha McDougall's appointment in October 2005. The judge has sent 67 questions to the attorney general in London.

The attorney general, Peter Goldsmith, has decided to invite independent counsel to enquire whether Hain or his advisers deliberately misled the High Court in Belfast.

And there is a further looming difficulty.

Sinn Féin will next month ask the High Court in London to strike down the appointments of ex-Alliance Party leader John Alderdice and former London police chief John Grieve to the Independent Monitoring Commission (IMC).

The party's solicitors, London firm Howe & Co, wrote last week to the Treasury Solicitors Department claiming they had met a “wall of evasion” in dealing with the Northern Ireland Office.

The letter relates that the firm first applied to the NIO under the Freedom of Information Act on 6 January 2006 setting out 21 questions about how candidates for the IMC were selected and chosen and asking if steps had been taken to establish that Alderdice and Grieve were free of bias.

When the firm complained on 6 February that no reply had been received despite the 20-day statutory time-limit having elapsed, the NIO responded: “We have no record of receiving your original letter... but we will take the date of receipt of your new letter as the date of your request.” The firm says it has an electronic record of the NIO having received their fax at 1.33pm on 6 January.

On 31 March, the NIO wrote saying that 20 of the 21 questions fell outside the Freedom of Information Act, claiming variously that disclosure might damage international relations, be prejudicial to the conduct of public affairs, breach legitimate expectations of confidence, be contrary to the provisions of the Data Protection Act and/or compromise security.

Howe & Co wrote again on 22 May 2, asking nine further questions on whether Hain had been aware of and what weight he had given to Alderdice's continued membership of the Alliance Party at the time of his appointment in January 2004. The NIO responded on 14 June that, “We have searched our records and have established that we do not hold any information relating to your request about Lord Alderdice's resignation from the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland in February 2006.”

In their letter last week, Howe & Co describe this as “wholly evasive...The single answer provided relates to a question which bears no resemblance to any of the nine questions posed.” The firm enclosed copies of the 21 questions raised on 6 January and the nine questions posed on 22 May, reminding the NIO that “the requests for information... are already before the court in the current judicial review proceedings”.

But Peter Hain is probably safe. Safe because nobody in Britain cares about what happens in Northern Ireland. And if, as seems probable, Gordon Brown becomes prime minister in the next six months, then Hain will probably be released from the backwoods of the Northern Ireland Office, perhaps to grace the elegant Foreign Office. That is unless he makes it to Number 10 as a compromise between the Blairites and Brownites. π

Additional reporting by Eamonn McCann and Frank Connolly