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Wednesday 27 August 2014

Grey man of politics began the thaw in Anglo-Irish relations

Gerard O'Regan

Published 14/12/2013 | 03:33

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Former British Prime Minister John Major arrives for the memorial service for former South African President Nelson Mandela at the FNB stadium in Johannesburg, South Africa Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2013. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis)
John Major - the grey man survived it all

When Edwina Currie went public on her four-year affair with former British Prime Minister John Major (right), there were some who flippantly argued it did the image of the so-called "grey man" of British politics no harm at all. They argued it added a much-needed frisson to what was perceived as his rather dull and plodding persona.

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Edwina, a former Tory party MP and junior minister, was hawking around her memoirs at the time, and some suggested she went into more detail than seemed ladylike in the circumstances.

But, as the cynics might say, she had a book to sell. What better way to give sales a gee-up than do the TV talk shows, recounting how you've written a tell-all tale about some fun and frolics you had with the man in Number 10, Downing Street.

Well that is now all way back when, and John and Edwina have long since left frontline politics. The grey man survived it all.

John Major was in Dublin this week when he was honoured by the Government to mark the 20th anniversary of the Downing Street Declaration. In retrospect, the Declaration was a piece of generalised fudge about the future of Northern Ireland, agreed between the British Prime Minister and Albert Reynolds, who was Taoiseach at the time. But it was also a remarkably intelligent document, which embraced the hopes and fears of all sides in the conflict.

It was forged by two very practically minded men, which set in train what would become known as the 'peace process'.

There was a particular poignancy that, during his visit on Wednesday, Major was forced to keep his anniversary meeting with Albert Reynolds private, because of the former Taoiseach's health problems.

However, it was very fortunate for Ireland that a man like Major became prime minister after the hectoring dogmatism of the Margaret Thatcher years. Previously, too many of our politicians and diplomats had to endure "handbaggings" of various hue, as they tried to nudge Anglo-Irish relations on to the often-unglamorous middle ground.

Overall, Major had to endure an unnecessarily troubled prime ministership. This was needlessly fermented by sniping from the sidelines from a bitter and disillusioned Thatcher in retirement, plus a motley group of her supporters, who simply refused to accept their time was past.

Yet through it all he doggedly tried to adopt what might be described as a reasonable, and non-ideological, approach to the problems that hounded his government. Sometimes his desire to achieve consensus made him wonder was he being a soft touch.

"I think the biggest mistake I made was this wretched ability to see both sides of an argument," he wailed on one occasion.

But this was the quality that allowed him to usher in a whole new era of open-mindedness in the way the British authorities viewed the Northern problem.

For his part, Major also had to confront unrelenting snobbery within the Conservative Party because of his modest background.

His father, a one-time trapeze artist turned music hall performer, in later years had a garden ornaments business, which went bust. The family home had to be sold and they moved to a two-bedroom, run-down rented flat in Brixton.

The searing experiences of his younger days would fashion many of his beliefs in later life. "I'm very proud of what my parents achieved and what they stood for. They didn't have much -- but in many ways they were richer than most," he said.

Despite his agreement-seeking, mild-mannered approach, he often showed flashes of steel when in office, such as forcing through initiatives on Northern Ireland.

On his Irish visit, he assured us Britain and Ireland are now the "closest of neighbours". It is right that John Major's courageous and imaginative efforts to help take the gun out of Anglo-Irish politics were honoured in Dublin this week. In retrospect, he played things cool and steady when this was very much the right way to go.

"The first requirement of politics is not intellect or stamina -- but patience. Politics is very much a long-run game and the tortoise will usually beat the hare," the grey man once famously said.

Touche.

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