15 January 2006

Liam Clarke meets Peter Hain

Sunday Times

15 January 2006

Man with a north-south plan

Usually, Peter Hain spends Christmas on South Africa’s Cape peninsula, where he was brought up and where his sister Sally still lives. This year the extended Hain family, all 15 of them, took up residence for the festive period in Hillsborough Castle, his official Northern Ireland residence.

He has to pretend to like the place, but Hain genuinely seems to have taken a shine to Northern Ireland. Asked how long he will stay there, he says: “I am not keen to move; I want to see this through. I really like the place and the people. You take a lot of stick, but in whatever jobs I have done I have sought to focus on where you can really change things and make a difference, and that is what I would like to do.”

The Northern Ireland secretary has the ability to get on with people and is a good listener as well as talker. His Labour colleague Paul Flynn has said of him: “He has the capacity to be on all sides simultaneously.”

In his other life, Hain is secretary of state for Wales and the principality was sufficiently impressed to vote him politician of the year for 2005 in a television poll.

It was at a Christmas party in the Wales Office that Hain introduced Ian Paisley, the Democratic Unionist party leader, to his parents, Walter and Adelaine. Some of those present expected sparks to fly. After all, it was less than a month earlier that Paisley had called for Hain’s resignation. But it turned out that they had something in common. Hain’s parents had both been imprisoned in South Africa for their opposition to the apartheid regime. Paisley, who likes to describe himself as “an old jailbird”, has been imprisoned twice in Northern Ireland for leading demonstrations.

Soon Walter Hain and Paisley were swapping reminiscences of Robben Island and Crumlin Road jail in Belfast. In his speech later Hain referred to them as “two old rebels”, but remarked that while his father was still a rebel, Paisley had now joined the establishment and was about to lead it. The humour, like the introduction, showed a sure touch with the DUP. Paisley was flattered and laughed uproariously. Some guests wondered aloud if prison terms would prove as convenient an ice-breaker between the DUP and Gerry Adams.

“I must say I like Ian Paisley and Peter Robinson,” says Hain. “Whether or not we have fierce arguments is not the point, I just like them as individuals. The same goes for Reg Empey as well, but particularly for the DUP people. They are easy to get on with.”

Hain’s rapport with the DUP is one of the surprises of his tenure. When he arrived in Belfast, the BBC dusted off a file of militantly nationalist statements he had made in the 1980s as a Labour left-winger. “Partition was and remains unjust and undemocratic . . . British policy was to promote and foster sectarian and religious division,” Hain wrote in a magazine in April 1988. Elsewhere he advocated Irish unity, British withdrawal and a tough line with unionism by any future Labour government.

With previous secretaries of state, any sign of a strong opinion on Northern Ireland has produced an immediate political squall, but Hain’s track record was stronger than the others’. Today he dismisses all that firebrand stuff, saying, “I’m not going to defend comments made 20 years ago in circumstances that are light years away from where we are now. That is part of the yellowing newspaper cuttings.”

He denies that the remarks were ever raised with him by unionists, though he concedes that they were brought up by a group of women from the loyalist Shankill Road. “Frankly it’s water off a duck’s back,” he said.

Hain was born in Nairobi and only came to England when his parents were barred from South Africa in 1966. His relentless campaigning against the apartheid regime made him a target for Boss, the South African intelligence service, which maliciously implicated him in a bank robbery for which he was subsequently acquitted.

He recalls: “Early on in my time here Gerry (Adams) and Martin (McGuinness) brought that up when I was talking about the Northern Bank. They were rejecting any suggestion that the IRA was involved in the robbery and they were making kind of jocular digs saying, ‘Well you were framed once, weren’t you?’”

It cut no ice with Hain, who told them: “There is no doubt that the IRA did it. The chief constable is absolutely right.”

He may listen to local politicians, and joke with them, and introduce them to his parents, but there is also a touch of steel and no mistaking his authority in cabinet. Under previous secretaries of state Sinn Fein were able to hold private meetings with the prime minister in No 10, now Hain is invariably present.

He has a will to act, and Northern Ireland leaders have found that huffing or refusing to move has not been an effective veto on Hain.

“The politics of procrastination is rife in Northern Ireland,” the minister complains. “There is a kind of blame culture; blame the secretary of state, blame London, blame the other parties. It is time people started escaping this and taking responsibility for governing themselves. I think this is going to happen.

“You can’t wait around for ever for oppositionalist politicians to keep playing their games. That period is over. My predecessors took the view that you shouldn’t take the tough decisions because that might get in the way of the politics. Perhaps they were right. I have taken the view that, actually, the politics had better catch up.”

Hain was, however, forced into a U-turn last week when he dropped legislation that would have granted on-the-run (OTR) terrorists immunity from imprisonment. The plan w,as drawn up by his predecessors in 2003 when it was published in draft form by the British and Irish governments with a guarantee that it would be legislated for once the IRA disarmed. Even though he intended to amend the legislation after all party opposition had been taken on board, the crunch came when Sinn Fein condemned the legislation on the grounds that security forces found guilty of Troubles-related offenses would also benefit from it.

Hain said last week that when Sinn Fein came to him in December and said it no longer supported the bill, his reaction was “to tell them to get lost.” His subsequent decision to drop the bill was taken to avoid the trouble and expense of setting up special tribunals that nobody would use. The commitment to legislate remains, but he is in no hurry to fulfil it. “I don’t think this can be addressed until there is a different climate, ” he says.

He adds: “As of now the lancing of the boil of the OTRs has created a positive atmosphere in which it might be possible to make progress. In the autumn I will see if anyone has any ideas to put to me.”

Ideas are required in other areas too. Under Mo Mowlam, John Reid and Paul Murphy, a series of difficult economic choices were postponed. The continuous gush of public spending — 63% of the province’s gross domestic product, or £60 (€88) a week in subsidies for every person — was unquestioned. With money tight at the British Treasury, Hain has ended the procrastination.

He has laid plans for water charges; he is jacking up rates by 19%; he is cutting the number of local authorities to seven; and in a forthcoming review of public spending he aims to slash the number of civil service departments. Cherished institutions such as the home service battalions of the Royal Irish Regiment are being scrapped in the name of rationalisation, despite unionist howls of protest.

Politicians are not exempt either. Last week in the House of Commons he warned that he will cut off the £85,000-a-year that is, on average, paid in salaries and allowances to members of the suspended Northern Ireland assembly. If the salaries stop, politicians’ advice centres will close and the whole political apparatus will run down. Moderate parties such as the Ulster Unionist party and SDLP will be worst affected.

But Hain makes no apologies. “There is no prospect of the status quo prevailing — millions of pounds being paid out for people not to do their jobs,” he says. It is strong medicine from a man who once campaigned for mass nationalisation and was ousted from the board of Tribune, the left-wing Labour weekly, by Gordon Brown for his neo-Keynesian views.

Now he sings from a different economic hymn sheet. “I don’t think people have woken up to the fact that the economy is not sustainable in its present form in the long term,” he says of Northern Ireland. “We have got to become much more competitive, less dependent on a bloated public sector with huge state subsidies and such a small private sector. It is just not sustainable.”

A key part of his strategy is increasing north/south co-operation and developing an all-Ireland economy, though he rules out two measures that have cross-party support in the province — reducing corporation taxes to southern levels or bringing the north’s high fuel taxes into line with the republic’s. “You can’t have a differential tax regime, whether it is corporation or petrol tax, across different regions of the United Kingdom.”

Despite that, he predicts: “There will be a lot more north/southery. Not gratuitous poking-unionists-in-the-eye north/southery, but common-sense practical north/southery to improve the quality of life and opportunities for people.

“The interpretation that this is a kind of Trojan horse for a united Ireland is 100% wrong. It is about whether the people of Northern Ireland are going to enjoy prosperity and opportunity in the future.”

Some of what he has in mind may be too much for the Irish government, from which Hain expects help to shoulder the burden of building up the north’s private sector. He suggests that Dublin use its muscle to secure inward investment for the north and even encourages Irish companies to transfer some of their operations across the border.

“There is recognition in the south that that is the way to go,” Hain insists. “Just as, for example, you have British and Irish companies establishing themselves in China and India and eastern Europe without necessarily losing jobs at home, I can see the opportunity for businesses in the republic, where skills are now short because it is overheated, actually seeing advantages in relocating part of their businesses north of the border.

“I was talking to the Irish foreign minister, Dermot Ahern, about the common marketing of the island of Ireland to investors, where we were not seeking to do each other down but were seeking to maximise international investment either side of the border, and particularly for the republic to use its clout in Irish/America to get investment up north.”

Other areas of cross-border co-operation could include the health service and policing. He envisages more joint use of hospital facilities and more exchanges between the gardai and the PSNI. But he adds: “I can’t see the gardai coming in as back-up for the PSNI if there was a crisis.” That will still be the job of the British army.

Most of the co-operation he favours seems to be in the public sector, where the governments have control, but Hain is also bringing pressure on private sector companies, which he believes are acting as a restraint on north/south trade.

Firmly in his sights are mobile phone companies who charge roaming tariffs for northerners crossing to the south and vice versa. “I am giving the mobile phone companies an ultimatum that we are going to achieve this all-Ireland tariff or life is going to get pretty tough for them.”

The immediate priority is to start political talks next month, and he promises to be tough with local politicians. If they don’t like his programme, Hain urges them to take charge themselves. Even if they do, “I don’t have any economic sweetener for them in my back pocket”.

Clearly, Hain’s affection for his new Irish friends only goes so far.

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