Tony Blair likened NI to Middle East in church leader talks
Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair compared Northern Ireland to the Middle East, where people “focus on the bad without taking into account the gains.”
He said those things at a gathering of Northern Ireland’s church leaders in January 2002.
The National Archive has made the private meeting minutes public.
Mr. Blair was also informed during the meeting that Protestant churches “had lost touch with working-class communities”.
The Prime Minister’s briefing notes and subsequent meeting minutes, which took place on January 24, 2002, are among the documents held by the National Archive.
The murder of Catholic postman Danny McColgan and ongoing violence in Northern Ireland, particularly in north Belfast, occurred that month.
To discuss several topics, including the Drumcree parade, sectarianism, the Northern Ireland health service, and claims that NI was a “cold place for Protestants,” Mr. Blair and the then Secretary of State Dr. John Reid met with the leaders of the four main churches.
Mr. Blair was hosting the world leaders at Downing Street for the first time.
Church leaders from various denominations attended the meeting, including Cardinal Sean Brady of the Roman Catholic Church, Rev. Harold Good of the Methodist Church, and Archbishop Robin Eames of the Church of Ireland.
There were also two other delegates: one from the Methodist Church and one from the Presbyterian Church.
Francis Campbell, a native of Northern Ireland and a member of the Downing Street staff at the time, wrote the meeting’s minutes.
Mr. Campbell stated that it would be a means of “encouraging the leaders in their ecumenical dialogue” in a briefing to Mr. Blair dated January 22, two days before the breakfast meeting.
It will help them stand up to Northern Ireland residents who don’t have much time for ecumenical activity, he wrote.
Additionally, Mr. Campbell expressed worries that Cardinal Brady, as the only Catholic leader, “might feel somewhat isolated if the discussion becomes too political.”
Brady is from the South, so meeting the British PM in Number 10 might intimidate him, said Mr. Campbell.
Health was described as “a subject of acute controversy in Northern Ireland” in Mr. Blair’s briefing.
On January 25, Mr. Campbell wrote a follow-up account of the meeting for Kirsten McFarlane, a representative of the Northern Ireland Office.
According to that account, Archbishop Eames informed Mr. Blair that it was important to explain the advantages of the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 to “ordinary people.”
“Alastair Dunlop echoed that,” the document stated.
The issue was that churches had lost contact with working-class neighborhoods. To address the decline in trust in the GFA, the churches, especially the Protestant churches, needed to find solutions. To do this, they needed government support.
The unionist community needed to understand the GFA’s central message, which was that Northern Ireland was a part of the UK because of consent and was subject to the majority’s will, Mr. Blair responded. It was necessary to refute the notion that one side should always make concessions.
He continued, “Northern Ireland was like the Middle East; people focused on the bad without considering the gains.
The disputed Drumcree parade was then brought up by Archbishop Eames.
He warned that if it wasn’t resolved, the entire peace process might be derailed.
When the conversation turned to law enforcement, Cardinal Brady informed the prime minister that “the Catholic community believed that the police were interested in security crime and not focused on tackling pipe bombers or everyday criminality.”
According to Mr. Campbell’s minutes, Dr. Reid stated during subsequent discussions that pipe bombings presented “a real difficulty” for the police.
He continued, “The perpetrators were frequently teenagers with little central organization.”
The UDA was challenging to handle without internment because it was unlike the PIRA (Provisional IRA).
According to the minutes, Cardinal Brady also brought up the treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, a military facility set up by the United States in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks.
Although Mr. Blair assured him that the British prisoners were “being well treated,” he added that their cooperation was “vital” if more attacks were to be stopped.
Although some of the declassified government records made public by the National Archives date from the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, most of them are from 2001 and 2002.