Blair milks goodwill on streets of Belfast

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Tony Blair, meeting the crowds at an agricultural show in Belfast yesterday, came into direct personal contact with Ulster's horny-handed sons of toil. "I'm getting really firm handshakes here," he said over his shoulder.

Kyle Lucas, 18, from the splendidly-named Nutts Corner, made the reverse observation after shaking hands with the Prime Minister. "He hasn't milked many cows, that boy. He has nice soft hands," he said.

There were cows aplenty at Balmoral yesterday, but Mr Blair milked none of them. He worked the crowd to perfection, however, delighting the normally taciturn farmers and farmers' wives who flocked to shake his hand. "I got his autograph," beamed one matron, "I'm all pleased."

Her companion enthused: "He's very nice, very friendly, I was very taken with him. Lovely soft hands, he doesn't do much work. We've hard hands, we're farmers." And her hands were indeed tough, firm, hardened: when Tony pressed her flesh, she had clearly forcefully pressed back.

Mo Mowlam, his Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, followed in his wake. She is another crowd-pleaser, the first touchy-feely Cabinet minister to be based in Belfast, as cordial and friendly as her predecessor, Sir Patrick Mayhew, was patrician and remote.

Mr Blair had just snatched a quick lunch in a function room with 12 sides, a construction which gives it the nickname of the Thrupenny Bit. There he delivered a speech intended to give new impetus to the Northern Ireland political processes, which by common consent has recently lacked direction.

Just over two years ago John Major stood in the same hall to launch the framework document, a joint London-Dublin paper sketching out a future in which Northern Ireland would remain within the Union, but take on an increasingly Anglo-Irish aspect.

As the months passed and the authority of the Major government ebbed away the framework document was barely mentioned, but yesterday Mr Blair reinstated it as one of the central columns of his policy. Sinn Fein, the IRA and loyalists were invited to arrange themselves around that proposition: the IRA was told to stop the violence, and loyalists were warned to avoid trouble in the summer's parades.

Most Protestants want to avoid another bad marching season, but some elements are apparently intent on putting their right to march above almost all other considerations.

Many republican supporters now want another IRA ceasefire: Mr Blair's move will put to the test their ability to deliver the whole republican movement. Certainly, all sides appreciate that it will need an audacious group to be the first to pitch itself in direct confrontation with a government of such authority.

His political messages delivered, it was outside into the sunshine to meet the farming community, which exuded goodwill but also anxiety about its livelihood. "I asked him to do something about BSE," said James Newell from Ballymoney, holding one of the prize Hereford bulls. "I said that all these cattle were destined for the burner, to be destroyed and incinerated, unless something was done. He said he had inherited a very difficult situation and would do his best."

A woman from Meath was delighted when Mr Blair told her his mother's family came from Donegal and were farmers. And a blonde woman with a matching prize-winning bull, a blonde D'Aquitaine, chuckled: "We introduced our bull to him. He's called Major, we told him he was the only Major to win anything this year ..."