Leading article: Give politicians a chance, too

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The Independent Online
IT IS easy to be cynical about our politicians, especially in a week when one former Cabinet minister has been charged with perjury and conspiracy to pervert the course of justice. But, as we wait for the results of yesterdays' referendums, we should consider the achievement of the architects of the Good Friday Agreement. John Major and Tony Blair had no need to get involved in trying to solve a problem which had ruined the careers of politicians going back at least as far as Pitt the Younger, forced to resign when the King refused to allow Roman Catholic emancipation.

Mr Major's motives were both intangible and honourable. He identified Northern Ireland as one of his first priorities when he became Prime Minister, although he found it hard to pinpoint why. "It had been in my mind for a long time... The thought kept running through my mind that if the killing was happening in Surrey it wouldn't be acceptable. But I was never in a position to do anything about it. When I came to No 10, however, I realised I was in a position to do something about it," he told his biographer, Anthony Seldon.

Tony Blair's motives are similar. Again, as a man of reason and compassion, he felt compelled to use the power of high political office to do what could be done to prevent, or at least minimise, the killing. Bertie Ahern, John Hume, David Trimble and Mo Mowlam equally deserve high praise for their public service.

It is a far cry from the popular view: "Only out for themselves. Tell you what you want to hear. All as bad as each other." Common sentiments, but wrong. A few politicians are venal, corrupt, self-seeking and amoral. And, as a group, they tend to be over-endowed with vanity and ambition. But they also tend to be more idealistic than the average, and more practically concerned with the welfare of their fellow citizens.

Most politicians follow a familiar sequence. They start as idealists, impatient with compromise, and become gradually more pragmatic with age. Often, amid the ruthless calculations necessary to make it to the top, they lose sight of the human values which first inspired them. In any case, the service of the public good becomes easily confused with vainglory. One of the motives for any prime minister in Ireland has always been to secure their place in history. Indeed, all the architects of the Good Friday Agreement want to bask in public approval. That is no bad thing, however, and as a criticism it is a far cry from the cynical assumption that all politicians are sleazeballs.

Politicians are subject to many universal human weaknesses: they can be stupid, greedy and dishonest. But they are also more likely than most to seek, as John Smith said in his unintended epitaph, "the chance to serve". Theirs is the spirit of restlessness on which civilisation has been built: the desire to order society better, to make a difference to people's lives.

As a class, politicians are as much distrusted as lawyers and journalists, but they are, as one commentator has characterised them, "honest opportunists". As we await the verdict of the peoples of the island of Ireland, we should pause to praise the politicians.