Thursday 21 March 2019

Martina Devlin: Like it or not, we do owe Blair a debt of gratitude

Martina Devlin

Martina Devlin

Towards Ireland, Blair gave liberally of his time, energy and patience... He believed in peace. And peace came to pass

Tony Blair always gave good walkabout. I tailed him on a number of occasions in the North, as he pressed the flesh during the peace-process years, and his people skills never deserted him.

Obviously, he was not universally liked -- I remember a 'man of God' who criticised him to his face over his choice of wife, specifically because of her religion. In certain circles there was fear, yes fear, that Cherie would influence her husband to convert -- and, indeed, within months of leaving Downing Street he was received into the Catholic Church.

Rather startlingly, Blair compares himself to the Princess of Wales in his memoir, yet the analogy he draws justifies it: "We were both, in our own way, manipulators," he writes. Each was a televisual figurehead capable of massaging attitudes and generating polarities of opinion.

But Blair had a knack for one-liners that the princess lacked. Who can forget "I feel the hand of history on our shoulders" before the signing of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement in Belfast? This caused a ripple of amusement even as he spoke, because he prefaced the comment by noting it was no time for sound bites.

Sound bite or not, it was an accurate reflection. His decade as British prime minister coincided with a momentous period in Irish history, a unique window of opportunity for peace. And Blair did not fumble it.

Yet war in Iraq and Afghanistan looks like constituting his legacy rather than peace in the North, even though it is reductive to focus on one without acknowledging the other.

This doesn't mean I think Blair was right to go to war in 2003 -- plainly it was a profoundly flawed decision with appalling consequences.

Among the disappointments of 'A Journey', published yesterday, is the way it shows Blair still failing to recognise the gravity of his error. Unfortunately, he continues to justify the bloodshed on the basis that Saddam Hussein (a dictator so ruthless, he murdered members of his own family) was too dangerous to leave in power.

The desert storm of publicity surrounding his book has stoked appetites for it, while anticipation has been further fuelled by the publisher's decision not to sell rights to the drip-feed of serialisation.

The market for political memoirs is potentially enormous if the author has widespread appeal: Margaret Thatcher shifted 300,000 in hardback in the UK and US, while Bill Clinton's hardback racked up 1.65 million sales. Even Alastair Campbell ran to almost 150,000 in those markets.

The target must be to outstrip Thatcher, particularly in the US -- an achievable objective. 'A Journey' is likely to sell well because people are curious to hear Blair's version of events; his unmediated voice. Eve-of-publication protests centring on the death toll in Iraq, and the war's dubious legitimacy, will not dent its sales.

An anti-war protest is to be held outside Eason in Dublin on Saturday, where Blair will be signing. The right to protest is a basic human one. But I wonder about the blinkers worn by those demonstrators. What do they have to say about his role in the North? Will they stand in O'Connell Street with placards reading: 'Bad Show in Iraq but Good Work on the North'? That's what their banners should say, in fairness. Otherwise they are operating on the basis of selectivity.

Iraq was the most controversial decision Blair made as prime minister. I don't seek to validate it. It cannot be defended. But we cannot take it in isolation when we examine his premiership. Toward Ireland, he gave liberally of his time, energy, patience and, above all, his faith in the possibility of a solution. He believed in peace. And peace came to pass.

He contributed more to this troubled island than any predecessor, and we owe him a debt of gratitude. Let's not be quick to forget it. I hope any rally will be conducted in a courteous manner. He went the extra mile for us and is entitled to civility from the Irish people. Even those holding placards that criticise him.

Going to war was a mistake on Blair's part, but it is wrong for protesters to call him a warmonger. I was particularly dismayed by the confrontational language used about him in a public letter from a group of creative artists, including members of the government-funded arts group Aosdana, urging Eason and RTE not to allow him a publicity platform.

Blair is no "notorious war criminal" and his €4.6m advance is not "blood money" -- such terminology is needlessly provocative and hyperbolic. He devoted years of his life to ending war here. He brought Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness into mainstream politics. How can he be labelled a war criminal?

I repeat, I do not endorse his decision to hit the attack button in Iraq. I simply note that censure of his record there must be tempered with respect for his achievements here.

It is not up to RTE, or any media organisation offered an interview, to censor Blair. He is a historic figure with particular resonance for Ireland. The public can listen to his account and draw its own conclusions. We are free to buy his book or leave it on the shelf.

Among other accusations, he has been disparaged as self-important and out of touch because of strict security restrictions on personal photography and a veto on dedicating book copies at his signing. This is regrettable, but similar constraints were in place for signings by U2 and Bill Clinton.

Meanwhile, an account of his time in office is an important historical document. It is not an independent one -- no political memoir is ever unbiased. However, historians can assess the claims made, and produce a more balanced account. But the lesson from healthy sales of most political memoirs (although how telling that Bertie's bombed) is that people want it from the horse's mouth.

A final thought: Tony Blair donated his advance to charity. Bertie pocketed the fee, plus the artist's tax exemption, while writing his book on our time, on a TD's salary plus several public pensions. Remind me again, which of these men should be picketed?

Irish Independent

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