‘Saturday August 15 1998 (holiday, Flassan)
Wendy Abbs [Downing Street duty clerk] came through on the other line to say there had been a huge explosion in Omagh, 12 thought to be dead, the PM was just being told, having just arrived at the house in France … I asked her to fix a conference call … As we spoke, reports were coming in that the death toll may be higher and all the ease that had been in TB’s voice at the start was gone. I said he would have to do TV straight away … I said we had to get over that the peace process is bigger than a group of fanatics who want to derail it. TB weighed in, saying we had to be making clear every peace process always faced disruption from people who wanted to destroy it. This was the last resistance and if we saw it off with public opinion there totally on our side, it could be another turning point. But how we react will dictate that.’
I thought of that exchange yesterday when I heard the news of the two soldiers killed in Nothern Ireland. The attack was brutal and a dreadful tragedy for the soldiers killed and others who were injured. For a small number of families, it was a horrible life-changing event. But for the peace process, the reaction from politicians and public indicated its strength not its weakness.
I had been talking about Northern Ireland at a Labour fundraiser on Friday night when in the q and a I was asked what I thought the Blair government should be proudest of. Northern Ireland figured very high in the list. I’ve said before that for me the single greatest moment of my time with TB was when we got onto a small plane in Belfast having, after several days and nights of intense negotiation, finally secured the Good Friday Agreement. As TB said at the time, it was only the first step, but it was a huge one, and with all the obstacles along the way since, it paved the way for a truly transformed Northern Ireland, one of his many contributions to history.
There was a bit of complaint on the Unionist side yesterday that Sinn Fein were not straight out of the blocks with a condemnation of the weekend killings. But Sinn Fein politics remains complicated, and as TB memorably said on another occasion in The Blair Years, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness go about their business with a modicum of fear that someone might come along and blow their brains out. Their words, when they came, underlined just how far we have come. They were words of clear condemnation, words of attack on people who simply do not want peace to work, words of warning that the attacks were not just wrong, but counterproductive.
There was a time, under Mrs Thatcher’s government, when Sinn Fein interviews had to be dubbed with the voice of actors because they were banned from carrying their message on TV. I always felt that was counterproductive, and what I heard from Adams and McGuinness yesterday was a clear, strong voice that told of phenomenal progreess in the decade since Omagh.
Back then, we had to work hard on Bill Clinton and his US officials to make sure they put pressure on Sinn Fein to make the right noises about the bombers being divorced from where the majority Republican opinion lay. Yesterday it happened without such pressure. ‘TB said there will be obstacles along the way but the forces of good have to prevail,’ I recorded in the diaries. And when he visited Omagh in the immediate aftermath, the message came back from victims, their families and ordinary members of the public ‘don’t give up.’
It was the same when we went there a few days later with Bill Clinton who, right at the height of the Lewinsky affair, got a huge emotional lift from the warmth of the response when he spoke to a huge crowd in Armagh of why the peace process was so important to him, and why it was too strong to be broken.
Progress in Northern Ireland was the result of bold leadership, commitment from a lot of different people for often very different reasons, hard work and an attitude that says whatever is thrown at you, you just keep going. These latest murders go down as ‘obstacles along the way’ but what is clear from the way people have reacted is that the forces of good are continuing to prevail.