Far from a dog's life for Mandy
Peter Mandelson talks to Books Editor John Spain about his autobiography -- and why he loved the North
For the so-called Sultan of Spin, Peter Mandelson is surprisingly open and frank about his time as Northern Secretary. One example in his new book is the benign, almost cuddly, picture he paints of Gerry Adams, whom he refers to as Gerry throughout the long Northern Ireland chapter. He also reveals himself and Gerry as an improbable pair of dog lovers.
Mandelson had arrived in the North after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, but faced a major challenge in getting decommissioning and a power-sharing administration under way. "The Agreement had been stillborn -- there was a complete stalemate", he says.
In the book he recalls that at one of their first meetings, Gerry Adams told him he should get a dog, saying that he found it much easier to think difficult issues through when he was out for a long walk with his own dog. "He even offered to get one for me," Mandelson writes. "That was vetoed by my security officials, no doubt because they feared a listening device would be embedded in one of the dog's paws."
It's just one example of the dry humour throughout the book. Not that you would know that from the coverage in the British media last week which was fixated on the mind-numbing details of the endless Tony and Gordon battle. In fact, Mandelson seems delighted to be able to talk about something else for a change, even the North.
"People might find this surprising, but I loved Hillsborough, I loved living in the North and I loved the work. It was the sort of complex, pressured work that I like best," he says.
But back to the dogs. He took Gerry's advice and got a Golden Retriever called Bobby, which he says Adams seemed to dote on as much as he did. "I remember on one occasion after the first breakdown on devolution, Gerry came to see me at Hillsborough and when he was having tea Bobby bounded into the room with a rubber bullet between his teeth, which he had found in the guard house at the entrance to the grounds. I looked at this with horror and wondered would Gerry notice it -- but if he did, he didn't mention it."
Much later, after Mandelson had succeeded against all the odds in getting a devolved administration started, he lost his job as Northern Secretary over a minor scandal to do with a passport application in London. He still denies he did anything wrong and clearly has not forgiven Blair for the way he was dumped. After being sacked, he rushed back to the North and was packing up in Hillsborough when, he writes in the book, Gerry Adams "rang to offer his commiserations, which was kind and thoughtful of him". Adams was one of very few people to do so and Mandelson was touched.
But does he not think that his portrayal of Adams in the book might be seen as a bit too benign? "He made up for it in his toughness in negotiation, I assure you," Mandelson says.
But what about Adams' history? "In the context of the peace process that's not really the point. You're not being asked to forgive anyone, you're being asked to help them to turn the page and start a new and different chapter and I believe that Gerry and Martin (McGuinness) were sincere in wanting to do that."
The book gives the impression that Mandelson's silky smooth negotiating skills were well suited to dealing with Northern intransigence and slow but significant progress was made while he was there. "During my time there I was able to remove the logjam and get the parties into a devolved government . . . but, as we know, it took some years for decommissioning to happen and for the settlement to be bedded down."
Looking back now, he thinks that too much was made of decommissioning at the time . . . "It gave Sinn Fein too much bargaining power; they were able to demand things which made the rest of the agreement more difficult to implement."
He says that because of Bertie Ahern's special relationship with Tony Blair, most of his dealings were with Brian Cowen when he became Minister for Foreign Affairs. "Brian was my opposite number. He could be difficult in the beginning because he was impatient. It was new to him -- I don't think he'd had the experience of dealing with the North's personalities and problems before. I sometimes felt that he thought my job as Northern Secretary was simply to clear the unionists out of the way -- he seemed to be wondering why I was pussyfooting around. I did find him impatient, but he's a quick learner and after a while we got on good terms and we were able to talk to each other realistically and frankly. I liked him."
In Ruth Dudley Edwards' book about Omagh, it was said that when he had a lengthy private meeting with the families, Mandelson broke down and wept. Is that true?
"Yes it is true," he says. "I was shaken not so much by what was said to me, but by the children's art I was shown . . . it was devastating, heartrending and also chilling. (The memory is still upsetting for him and there is a pause before he continues.)
"It was seeing the misery these young people had been through that made me want to help. That is why I devoted a lot of time to supporting their case later on." Mandelson's long-term backing was a key factor in the success of the civil action taken by the families.
Although he plays down his role in the North in the book, he is clearly proud of the work he did there. "Of the different ministerial jobs I held, being Northern Secretary was not only the most important and challenging, I also found it the most enjoyable and I really liked the people there."
Mandelson mentions in the book about how his own family and his long-term partner Reinaldo da Silva's family stayed at Hillsborough and had a wonderful time there. Despite the conservative society in the North, Mandelson felt comfortable there as a gay man who happened to be the Northern Secretary. "I certainly found no problem in the North," he says.
How much has being gay affected his career and why does he refuse to talk about his private life?
"It's of no consequence to me in my political life. Because I'm in politics I've always tried to protect the people in my private life but people confuse that with a reluctance to talk about being gay. But it's not, it's different. I have no problem talking about being gay.
"I feel that people no longer have to make a great song and dance out of their sexuality. People can be themselves and gain acceptance without parading around -- that's how it should be. Live and let live, that should be the motto."
What does he think about the angst that surrounded the Civil Partnership legislation here? "People have got to relax a bit -- the roof won't fall in," he says. "I would be surprised if a sophisticated, civilised country like Ireland can't cope with this or with politicians who are gay."
So does he think it is credible that out of the 226 members of the Dail and Seanad only one, David Norris, is gay? He tries to answer . . . but he is laughing so much he gives up.
One person who gets very favourable mention in the book is Charlie McCreevy. After Mandelson eventually became an EU Commissioner and when he was learning the ropes at Commission meetings in Brussels, he writes, "I was lucky to sit next to Charlie McCreevy, the dry-humoured former Irish finance minister who later had to grapple with the brunt of the banking crisis." He enjoyed the voluble Irishman's company very much and now refers to him as "my good friend Charlie".
Given his extensive business experience as the EU Commissioner for Trade, does he have a message for us on the Irish economy? "I wouldn't dare tell the Irish what to do because they have a very capable minister for finance.
"But you need to look after the banks and protect them from themselves and, yes, deal with the deficit, but not in a way that will harm economic growth in the future. It's future economic growth that will take care of both the deficit and national debt."
But is he not aware that some people here are now blaming his "good friend" Charlie McCreevy for the depth of the Irish recession? "Isn't hindsight a wonderful thing," Mandelson observes.
The Third Man by Peter Mandelson is published by HarperCollins at £25.