Tony Blair encountered both the rough and the smooth in Belfast yesterday. The smooth part came with what was by all accounts a cordial meeting with Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness and other republicans in the inter-party talks at Stormont.
When Mr Adams told him that he hoped he would be "the last British prime minister with jurisdiction in Ireland," he did so in a non-confrontational tone. When Mr Blair replied that "there is an opportunity and we've got to seize it because if we don't see it we may not see it again in my lifetime," the Sinn Fein leader seems to have been impressed.
The civilities which accompanied this, the first handshake between a prime minister and a Sinn Fein leader since Lloyd George met Michael Collins, were however in sharp contrast to the rough treatment Mr Blair received an hour later in an east Belfast shopping centre.
"Traitor," they shouted. "Your hands are covered in blood," they barracked him. The loyalist protesters were waiting, some wearing rubber gloves to show what they thought of the Blair-Adams handshake. "Shame," they shouted. One man kept up a metronomic chant: "Scum - scum - scum." A woman yelled: "You are contaminated, I'll not shake hands with you."
The Prime Minister took refuge in a bank before the security people got together to escort him away from it all.
David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist leader, blamed the media, saying people had been "infuriated and goaded" by exaggerated reports of the significance of the occasion. He added: "I disapprove of what has happened but let's put the responsibility where it belongs."
The handshakes took place behind closed doors at the Stormont talks building.
Afterwards Mr Blair said: "I treated Gerry Adams and the members of Sinn Fein in the same way I treat any human being. What is important in the situation here in Northern Ireland is that we do treat each other as human beings. Everybody who is here has got to be committed to the principle of non-violence - anybody who departs from this will not be in these talks."
Mr Blair also held short meetings with the seven other parties, apart from Sinn Fein, who are in the talks. While discussions are still in their early stages, the British and Irish governments hope that today will bring the opening of substantive negotiations on what is seen as the most sensitive part of the talks, the question of Northern Ireland's future relations with the rest of Ireland.
Mr Adams later said approvingly: "We are dealing with a man who certainly recognises this is an historic opportunity. He recognises also there needs to be change to bring about transformation to consolidate the peace process. If there's going to be change, there needs to be change also by the British government and I hope Mr Blair brings that about."
John Hume, leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, said of Mr Blair: "The very fact that he is coming to visit our towns and cities has strengthened the will of our people for lasting peace in an enormous way."Reuse content