Blair edges away from uniting Ireland: Labour leader emphasises the role of majority consent and shifts his party closer to neutrality

Click to follow
The Independent Online
TONY BLAIR has repositioned the Labour Party's policy on Northern Ireland by indicating he would not act as a 'persuader' for Irish unity if he became Prime Minister.

In an important development that has gone unnoticed outside Northern Ireland political circles amid the attention devoted to the IRA cessation of violence, Mr Blair has underpinned Labour's bipartisan approach by readjusting its policy of Irish unity by consent.

In an interview on BBC Radio 4's Today programme on Thursday, he said last December's Downing Street declaration, which he enthusiastically endorsed, had effectively overtaken the historical position of all the main parties in relation to Northern Ireland. He paid to tribute to John Major for the 'breakthrough' with the declaration. The implication is that just as the Tories have moved to neutrality from a prescriptively Unionist view that Northern Ireland should always remain within the United Kingdom, so the Labour Party has also moved closer to neutrality by emphasising that it is up to the majority of people in Northern Ireland to determine their future.

Asked in the interview by James Naughtie whether he would act as a 'persuader' for a united Ireland if he was Prime Minister, the Labour leader said: 'The great change that was made by (the) Downing Street declaration was that it, if you like, almost overtook all the historical positions of all parties in relation to this. The breakthrough that it made and where, I think, the Prime Minister does deserve credit, is in saying in effect: the UK said to Northern Ireland 'Remain in the Union if you wish to'. The Republic of Ireland said 'Come in a united Ireland if you want to'. And that principle of self-determination is absolutely essential, it is what has altered the entire context within which the future occurred. Now, what is important now is not that the Government acts as a persuader, whether as a Conservative government or a Labour government . . .'

Mr Naughtie said: 'Ah well, this is the point, isn't it?' Mr Blair replied that Labour had always said it can only happen through consent. 'The important thing that has changed, and where I think the Downing Street declaration puts the whole of the future of Northern Ireland in a different context, is that it is agreed by the Republic and by the British government that it is for the people of Northern Ireland to determine their future.

'Now the important thing is not that the Government takes up the role of pushing people in one direction or another but that they facilitate the wishes of those in Northern Ireland to be paramount. Now the great change that that can then bring about is that it not merely changes the context within which any details of that future government develop but it changes the attitude of people within Northern Ireland. I mean generations have grown up believing that violence is the only way of securing their ends. What has changed, and what we must as a political party support the Government in doing, is changing those attitudes and allowing people to understand that in fact it is through a democratic process that change can be secured.'

The duellists, page 11