Peter Hain: time to go?

The new secretary of state for Northern Ireland is a bad thing for the peace process, says Paul Dixon. Is it conspiracy or blunder?

Peter Hain is the most partisan secretary of state for Northern Ireland ever appointed. He has a documented record of activism in the movement for British withdrawal from Northern Ireland since at least the mid-1970s until the mid-1990s, and there is no reason to think his sympathies have changed since.

As late as 1994, the magazine of the Troops Out Movement quoted Hain as saying: ‘I am a longstanding supporter of British disengagement from Ireland and the Irish people’s right to national self-determination.’ In his 1995 book Ayes to the Left, he argued in favour of Irish unity and claimed that it was ‘… for the people of Ireland [not Northern Ireland] to determine their own future.’

Hain – longstanding supporter of British disengagement

Anti-Unionist views

Peter Hain’s record of activism in support of withdrawal and his anti-unionist views have been eclipsed by more high profile supporters of withdrawal – Ken Livingstone, Tony Benn and Clare Short. In the mid-1970s Hain supported the Troops Out Movement and the demonstrations for withdrawal on both the 10th and 20th anniversary of the deployment of British troops in 1979 and 1989. He spoke in favour of withdrawal at the Labour Party conference in 1981 – the high tide of the withdrawal movement in Britain. In 1988 Hain became vice-chair of the Time To Go! campaign that was designed to culminate on the 20th anniversary of the deployment of British troops in August 1989.

Hain was actively campaigning for British withdrawal into the 1990s. The pro-Sinn Fein Labour Committee on Ireland was the key group within the British Labour Party arguing for withdrawal from Northern Ireland. Peter Hain was on the editorial board of their magazine, Labour and Ireland, until it ceased publication in 1990. In 1991 and 1992 Hain was a speaker at the Labour Committee on Ireland’s fringe meetings at Labour party conference.

In 1991, Peter Hain was also involved with the Trade Unionists for a United Ireland Forum. He actively opposed the movement within the trade unions that was campaigning to allow people in Northern Ireland to join the British Labour Party.

In October 1991, writing in An Ireland Agenda, the newsletter of the Labour Committee on Ireland, he argued that ‘the issue ultimately comes down to whether you see the North of Ireland as inalienably a part of Britain, or you recognise that partition in 1921 was undemocratic, oppressive, denied the Irish their own history and right to self-determination, and is the root cause of generations of conflict.’

He concluded that ‘… a strategic withdrawal which finally called the Unionist bluff and convened a constitutional conference to negotiate a new future for the North could provide the only serious basis for justice, stability and democracy.’

During the 1990s Irish republicans began to shift their emphasis away from the demand for British withdrawal and towards joint British-Irish authority, and then the compromise settlement in the 1998 Belfast Agreement. Peter Hain also supported the peace process and the Belfast Agreement – few wanted to be more republican than Sinn Fein.

Since 1997 Hain has been constrained in his ability to frankly express his personal views on Northern Ireland by the series of positions he has held within the Labour government. Nevertheless, some commentators have detected Hain’s pro-nationalism in speeches made on the lessons to be learned from Northern Ireland when he was Foreign Office minister in 2000.

Open secret

Peter Hain claims that Tony Blair knew all about his past history when he appointed him. He has also refused invitations to renounce his previous views on Northern Ireland saying that all this was 30 years ago.

The appointment of Peter Hain, who has a clear record of anti-unionism, is either conspiracy or blunder. The appointment of a pro-republican secretary of state could be part of the pay-off to the IRA to get them to finally give up the guns and disband. But Hain’s past is an open secret that could have been revealed at any time to destabilise on-going negotiations.

If Hain’s appointment is a blunder then it does not bode well for the peace process. If you want to negotiate a peace deal between republicans and unionists you don’t appoint an ‘honest broker’ who has a long and active history of anti-unionism. Perhaps it is already time for Peter Hain to go.

This article was written before the IRA announcement on 28 July of an end to the armed campaign.

Paul Dixon is author of Northern Ireland: The Politics of War and Peace (2001) and a politics lecturer at the University of Ulster