Donald Macintyre's Sketch: 'I am the Prime Minister,' Tony Blair told Select Committee - and he acted as if he was


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Indy Politics

It’s hard to know why Tony Blair resisted coming to the Northern Ireland Select Committee. A politician (and lawyer) who had proved a past master at defending the indefensible was hardly going to implode when he actually had a strong case.

But he was anything but laid back. He was frequently combative, including in some arrestingly personal and forensic exchanges with Ian Paisley Jnr. He was also surprisingly intense.

But then he wasn’t the only class act in the room. Most of the committee know their stuff and asked well-aimed questions which mattered – in particular to those bereaved by the crimes committed by those who have not been brought to justice. Their presence in the room added to the tension.

At times it was easy to forget he was not still Prime Minister, partly because of language which suggested he had forgotten too. Asked, about the “mistake” – for which he apologised – that led to the collapse of the prosecution of John Downey for the IRA’s Hyde Park bombing, Blair said he accepted “full responsibility” for not establishing a “structure” that might have avoided what Lady Justice Hallett had called a “catastrophic error.” Blair declared: “I am the Prime Minister and I should accept responsibility for everything that happens in a government of which I am Prime Minister.”

That could be written off as the historian’s present tense – “William the Conqueror lands in Pevensey in September 1066”. But when the equally forensic Lady Hermon pressed him on why the other recipients of the On The Run letters should not be named, he dwelt on the legal and political difficulties instead of casually saying, as he might have done: “That’s a matter for the present government.”

Blair also gave glimpses of the realpolitik in the peace process. Pressed by Labour’s Unionist-minded Kate Hoey on the oddity of the Northern Ireland Office having been warned that Downey was wanted for the Hyde Park atrocity before he got his On The Run letter, Blair said this implied the NIO had acted “deliberately”. That would have been “pretty stupid” because it would come to light – “which it did.”

Blair did not accept Paisley’s invitation to turn round and “apologise” to the bereaved face to face. But the realpolitik had been in the higher cause of preventing further suffering. The Hallett report had said it wasn’t a secret amnesty.

The letters – Downey’s apart – had only been sent to those that the “prosecuting authorities” had decided would not be charged, and had been much less than the Republicans wanted.

Whether he is right that Sinn Fein would have walked out of the process if the letters had not been sent, we may never know. But this was Blair fiercely defending the best of his legacy. And doing it, as had always been expected, pretty well.