Michael Portillo Article for The Sunday Times, 13 March 2005.
A brief history lesson shows Blair’s terror talk is hollow
Tony Blair’s wish to fight the election on which party is tougher on terrorism is depressing. There is no mistaking the Prime Minister’s intentions. Last week he told Parliament: “The shame will lie with the Conservatives, who, faced with legislation to prevent terrorism… are going to vote against it.”
It is disgraceful to suggest that one party does not wish to “prevent terrorism.” Until recently Labour demonised Michael Howard for being an illiberal Home Secretary. With a quick somersault it now denigrates him for being soft on terror. On Blair’s logic, other wimps include Margaret Thatcher and Norman Tebbit (who escaped assassination by Irish terrorists in the Brighton bombing of 1984) since they too voted against the government’s Prevention of Terrorism Bill. They were joined by that other well known sucker for suicide bombers, Lord Irvine, Blair’s former Lord Chancellor and lifelong mentor.
A year ago this weekend Spanish politicians played party politics with terrorism. In the few hours between the murder of nearly 200 people in the Madrid train bombings on the Thursday and the general election on the Sunday, the incumbent Mr Aznar claimed that it was the work of ETA terrorists. He hoped for political advantage because his socialist opponents were seen as too conciliatory towards the Basque separatists. It suited the challenger Mr Zapatero to point the finger instead at Al-Qaeda, arguing that Spain was being punished for its government’s pro-American line. Those events have left Spain deeply polarised, and a new bitterness has entered the political debate.
The United States is also profoundly divided, following an election campaign dominated by George Bush’s claim that John Kerry would be unreliable on national security.
It is easy to see that Bush’s campaign has inspired Blair. It represents a significant shift for the Prime Minister. Until now his political successes have depended on building consensus. With this issue he wishes to polarise Britain. He tells us you are either with him or against him. Either you oppose terror or you are its naïve accomplice.
That divisive rhetoric reminds many in the Labour Party of the Thatcher government. They see Blair continuing to metamorphose into the Iron Lady. He convinces himself that he is always right, no matter how often he has been forced to change his argument. The virulence with which he denounces opposing views is almost paranoid. It was irrational for him to suggest that he would rather have no bill rather than accept a sunset clause that would limit it to one year’s life. Eventually, he himself proposed a similar compromise but gave it a different name. Blair showed that he is really tough at rejecting any ideas other than his own.
In the heated atmosphere Michael Howard reminded Blair that in opposition he had habitually opposed the Tory government’s anti-terror legislation. If Blair fights the election on who is soft on terrorism, he may not get the answer he expects.
Events in Northern Ireland have focused attention on what kind of deal Blair did with the terrorists there. The robbery at the Northern Bank in Belfast (supposedly by the IRA) and the murder of Robert McCartney should put Blair as well as Sinn Fein on the defensive. The handshakes that produced the Good Friday agreement may have ended the bombings, but they have left the Prime Minister with dirty hands. In the year after the pact there were 103 IRA punishment beatings. Today none of the seventy people who saw McCartney killed will step forward to testify, which suggests that the population is cowed by the fear of terrorist reprisals. The IRA’s offer to shoot McCartney’s murderers merely confirms that in one part of the United Kingdom people are effectively governed by a terrorist organisation.
Watching Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness squirm over recent weeks reminded me how rarely they are held to account. When Sinn Fein entered mainstream politics all the tricky questions were glossed over for fear of upsetting the peace process. Adams and McGuinness are not made to answer for what they were doing twenty years ago, which gives them a privilege over others who climbed the ladder by purely democratic means.
Now they are on the defensive and exposed to ridicule. But that owes little to the British government. It is the brave determination of McCartney’s sisters that has rocked Sinn Fein/IRA. Adams has laughably declared that the IRA, an organisation devoted to intimidation, cannot be associated with criminality, and he had the brass neck to appear at a Sinn Fein conference shepherding the McCartney family.
Inconveniently for him the Irish Justice Minister Michael McDowell identified Adams and McGuinness as members of the IRA’s Army Council, the body that controls those who murdered McCartney.
The revelations threw new light on Blair’s sustained ambiguity about the relationship between Sinn Fein and the IRA. Assuming that Blair knew of the double roles played by Adams and McGuinness his cliché about the party and the terror group being two sides of the same coin is less a euphemism than a deception.
Just a few weeks ago Blair was exasperated that Dr Ian Paisley was demanding photographic evidence from the IRA of any destruction of weapons. The Democratic Unionist leader looks less nitpicking now. Had Blair prevailed Paisley would by now be discredited with his supporters for having done a deal with a party linked to thuggery, robbery and murder.
Blair has responded to the latest outrages by giving Sinn Fein a really fierce slap on the wrist. With more than £26 million stolen from the bank and after McCartney was butchered in a Belfast pub, the Prime Minister has withdrawn the party’s House of Commons allowances, worth about half a million pounds. Tough on terrorists? I don’t think so.
Blair is a talented creator of myths. Listening to him you might believe that the IRA engaged in a sort of gentlemanly terrorism that was not particularly lethal. That rosy distortion helps justify both the Prime Minister’s lack of support for counter-terrorism laws in the past and his indulgence of Sinn Fein today. It is important for him to present Al-Qaeda terrorism as being of a wholly different order, to justify a cavalier attitude to civil liberties.
We must challenge that myth. IRA terrorism blighted Northern Ireland and Great Britain for thirty years. Over that period, the troubles claimed more lives than September 11 th 2001. The IRA did not use suicide bombers but it still killed large numbers. Blair has apologised to those convicted of the 1974 Guildford pub bombing, but that should not obscure the fact that Irish terrorists slaughtered five victims there that day and 21 in Birmingham, and they went on killing until 29 perished on Remembrance Day 1998 in Omagh. On two occasions they came close to murdering Britain’s Prime Minister. While they were lobbing mortar bombs onto Heathrow Airport Blair was still voting against the government’s anti-terror laws.
Murder by the IRA was an almost daily event, claimed many lives, disrupted the economy and was directed at the heart of the state. By comparison, Al-Qaeda terror is mercifully infrequent, though massive when it occurs. The contrast between the dangers from the IRA and Al-Qaeda is much more complex than Blair admits.
A rumour ran round Westminster last week that the Prime Minister would choose to lose the Prevention of Terrorism Bill and call a snap election. The idea frightened the Labour Party more than the Tories. The Left regard Blair as an electoral liability and hope that he will take a low profile. Governments that try to confine an election to a single issue find that the campaign drifts off uncontrollably to other matters. The question would become: do you trust Blair? It would also spotlight the reliability of intelligence, which of course would place the Iraq War at the heart of the election campaign.
The arguments against calling a snap election on the terrorism issue were obvious. But Blair has become so dogmatic, egocentric and capricious that last week no one could be wholly confident that he would not take the plunge.
Polling day will after all be May 5 th, by when last week’s brouhaha will be a fading memory, but terrorism will nonetheless figure as a party political issue. The Prime Minister will effectively accuse his opponents of lacking patriotism. As a result, the public’s regard for politicians will take a further plunge. As has happened in Spain and America already, a new acrimony will divide the parties in Britain. It’s a dismal prospect.