Former British leader Tony Blair admits he was very worried when Gerry Adams was arrested recently with relation to the McConville case, and says the focus in Northern Ireland must be on the future not the past.
The interview took place in his hotel suite in Washington, where he had just addressed a Co-Operation Ireland breakfast downstairs attended by many Washington powerbrokers.
Blair also said the peace in Northern Ireland and his work on obtaining a minimum wage law were highlights of his time as Prime Minister.
Speaking of the Adams arrest Blair said, “I was worried about the impact on the process, I understand the reasons for it. It is important we recognize that you can’t overcome the past by ignoring it, but we do have to make sure we are focused on the future. These are very, very difficult questions bound to come up from time to time.”
He spoke of his admiration for Adams and Martin McGuinness and stated Irish American backing for the process was critical as it helped to “validate Adams and McGuinness who had an incredibly tricky journey of change. I always say the quality of their leadership, some unionists will recoil when I say this, but it is important, I say this, the quality of their leadership in bringing their people together and towards peace was remarkable.”
He noted people had to remember what the bad old days were like. He stated he was warned off Northern Ireland as an issue by cabinet ministers when he first took over as Prime Minister and was told it was unsolvable. It was a time he recalled when Northern Ireland was the lead story often as 3 days in every week and always bad news.
He said members of his cabinet told him, “No point, Major tried and failed, it is broken down what on earth do you want to spend your time on that for.”
Blair, however, says he saw a "bigger strategic picture which made me think we could make peace."
He stated, “People underestimate this, not just the relationship with Bertie Ahern, but the ability of both of us to grasp that moment in history where actually the British and Irish interest was far more in alignment than in separation. That was very, very important .
“This was a dispute as we approached the 21st century that was completely out of line with rationality; we were still arguing about old history.”
He said the lesson of Ireland for the Middle East was the need for that kind of overall vision.
“That galvanizing kind of vision does provide a big impetus. My view of the Israeli-Palestinian issue is the dimension that is missing is a sense on either side at this moment in time of the vast strategic significance of what is happening in the rest of the Arab World and what is weird about it is that both sides continue to have a conventional negotiation with the conventional themes of it with conventional positions when all around them a revolution has happened.”
He said earlier at the breakfast that dealing with the past was critical and very difficult and some of the hardest decisions he had made were releasing prisoners who had done horrific things.
In relation to victims he stated, “You need to have a means of allowing people to feel they have been heard and not forgotten. The hardest meetings I ever did in politics were with families of victims utterly disempowered by the peace process.
“You do need to find a way for people to articulate grievance but in a way that does not undermine the whole process. We struggled with it a long time and never got a successful formula,” he admitted.
His advice to American envoy Richard Haass, tasked with coming up with a compromise on flags, parades and past atrocities was simple. “Keep at it,” he said, noting he had come close to agreement the last time.
He noted that the issue of decommissioning had similarly bedeviled him. "We had terrible trouble getting things working properly. General De Chastelain was often in great difficulty there were three of four false starts on decommissioning, but it got resolved."
“My advice to Richard is to keep going. We have got to resolve it.”
Speaking of his own worst moment in the process he said, “I had a moment towards the very end of the Good Friday Agreement where I thought we had lost it, it was a hugely difficult decision for David Trimble to make and I thought it was lost. The seesaw went very far down.”
He said he also worried that the government institutions would never get set up. “I wasn’t sure through 2003, 2004 , 2005, very anxious because you had to have them up and running.”
He paid tribute to President Clinton saying it could never have happened without him.
“He was prepared to spend the time phoning up leaders of parties big and very small, the personal engagement of the President of the United States is really important, the power of the American presidency.
“There was unionist skepticism about the American intervention, nonetheless when the President of the United States is on the phone, most people take the call.”
He says his own Protestant Irish background and his wife’s Liverpool Irish Catholic upbringing helped him understand Ireland better.
He visited Ireland on holidays going to his grandparents. “My own family background (Protestant from Donegal) gave me enormous interest in the subject and awareness of the history, but the trips stopped because of The Troubles and I saw how isolated and divided the community had become.”
He said he learned from wife’s Cherie’s Irish Catholic roots as well. “Both memories of my grandmother, who really was somewhat prejudiced on the issue, then my wife telling about school in Liverpool where Irish Republican songs were sung, most British people would not have got that at all.
As for the future does he see the North being finally settled soon?
"These things are never settled until a whole generation has worked its way through. It is a thing constantly to be worked on and never left alone."