The man who kept them all talking

Tony Blair's control freakery has been evident in Ireland, but his tenacity may prove key to achieving peace
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here was a rumour going around in Belfast on Friday that ony and Cherie Blair were going to act as ambassadors to the opposing parties during today's Drumcree march. he Prime Minister would attend a Protestant service, it was said, while his wife went to a Roman Catholic church, before they came together in a symbolic act of reconciliation at the end. In fact the idea, put forward by one of David rimble's staff in a policy paper, was immediately dismissed by Downing Street. But it is a sign of how much attention is focusing on Blair's personal leadership style that it was ever mentioned at all.

Last week's events in Northern Ireland were yet another example of the Prime Minister's increasingly presidential style. he deal proposed for the establishment of the executive and the decommissioning of weapons was one struck not by the British government with the Northern Irish parties, but by Blair with their leaders. Meanwhile, the Northern Ireland Secretary, Mo Mowlam, was pushed to the sidelines. She was dispatched back to London and hovered at the back of the Commons during Prime Minister's Question ime on Wednesday, while the man who was meant to be at the despatch box was on her patch in Belfast.

hese negotiations were a prime ministerial act, just as much as the decision to press for ground troops in Kosovo, or the move to tackle public opinion about Brussels head on by attending the launch of the pro-single currency group, Britain in Europe. Even the announcement of the proposed deal - on the steps of an office block after 100 gruelling meetings - was a personal appeal to the country to grasp "the most historic opportunity for peace" for years. It was executed with the same dramatic flair that the Prime Minister deployed after the death of the Princess of Wales, just a few months after the general election, when he coined the phrase "the people's Princess".

Some people see this as control freakery and it is particularly irritating to some members of the Cabinet who feel they are being ignored. But it is this very manner that gives Blair the ideal skills for dealing with Northern Ireland. "He doesn't lose his rag during the negotiations," one friend said. "He just repeats something again and again." his public- school-educated barrister is primarily an arch diplomat. He has done it with the Labour Party, holding together left and right by giving just enough positive noises to both sides; he did it with the Eurosceptic press before the general election, telling readers of the Sun that Labour would keep the "pound in your pocket" while promising Brussels that he wanted to "lead in Europe".

Critics say Blair is all things to all men - something which could backfire spectacularly in Ulster where everyone is sensitive to the tiniest nuance. Ken Maginnis, the Ulster Unionists' social security spokesman, said yesterday that the party had been double-crossed by the British prime minister. He "betrayed us at the eleventh hour", he said.

But the "Hi guys" approach (the Prime Minister actually used his catchphrase once to a band of astonished bowler-hatted Orangemen) seems to have worked at some levels - when he addressed the Ulster Unionist members of the Assembly last week, Blair was applauded as he walked in to the meeting room and as he left.

here has also been a constant battle to keep doors open by maintaining positive headlines - another New Labour speciality. Last week, despite serious rumblings of discontent from the unionists, the media coverage remained consistently upbeat. Downing Street, knowing optimistic stories were crucial to keep the momentum going, would release positive titbits close to deadline each evening. On Friday the spin was more noticeable when David rimble, the Ulster Unionist leader, stood up to give his reaction to the proposed deal - his negative reaction had already been counterbalanced by the overwhelmingly positive tone of all the other speakers.

In this context the spin is about oiling the wheels of diplomacy. Blair has established a good working relationship with the three key players on the Irish scene: David rimble, the Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams, and the aoiseach, Bertie Ahern. his is in itself something of a feat, given their widely varying perspectives.

rimble and Adams can be difficult in different ways. he Unionist leader is notoriously prickly and volatile, while dealing with a republican leader must pose problems for a British prime minister, even though Adams is a personable character.

None the less, a fair degree of trust has been established between them and Blair. he problem is, however, that unionist and republican have almost no trust for each other, a situation which creates real difficulties for the Prime Minister.

he most recent phase of the peace process has centred on giving the two sides enough confidence to "jump together", in Adams' phrase. Without trust every suggested step has to be underpinned with assurances and guarantees, which is something that clearly exasperates Blair.

While John Major devoted an unusual amount of time to Northern Ireland, Blair has spent even more. Unionists and republicans regularly troop into No 10, putting pressure on his timetable and his patience. In the last few months he has attended more than 100 meetings on Irish matters; then in Belfast last week he attended in excess of 100 more in five days.

his pattern has been established partly because of his hands-on approach and partly because of unionist antipathy towards Mo Mowlam. rimble has made no secret of the fact that, rather than travel the few hundred yards from his own office to that of Mowlam, he much prefers catching a plane to see the Prime Minister or his chief of staff, Jonathan Powell.

It cannot have been easy establishing a relationship with David rimble, the jumpy leader of a jumpy party, yet Blair has managed it. He has also so far proved a shrewd evaluator of just how far he can push the Unionist leader without causing him or his party to snap. he next few weeks will show whether he is correct in calculating that the party will, however reluctantly, endorse the communique from last week's talks.

At the same time the Prime Minister has been called on to make another key judgement call, in working out the intentions of the republican movement. From his earliest weeks in office he has displayed more accurate instincts about the republicans than did John Major.

While Major never met Sinn Fein, and told the Commons that the idea of meeting Gerry Adams "would turn my stomach", Blair has established a civilised relationship. Adams has clearly responded to this, speaking of the Prime Minister with respect.

he third relationship, that with Bertie Ahern, is less problematical but is also of great practical use. he two prime ministers are said to be unusually close; so much so that by all accounts Anglo-Irish relations run more smoothly now than they have for decades.

It is still uncertain whether the arch diplomat will have brokered a deal in Northern Ireland - but already the Prime Minister is being asked to deploy his negotiating skills at home. his weekend Blair is facing a rebellion at Labour's policy forum from left-wingers who want to beef up the party's commitment to the welfare state. Soon he will try to stamp his authority on the party again by reshuffling his cabinet. he next round of diplomacy is about to begin.

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