Gordon Brown says Tory pacts with unionists breach British neutrality

Posted By: November 09, 2017

JOHN MANLEY. Irish News. Belfast.  November 8, 2017

FORMER prime minister Gordon Brown claims the British government’s “long-standing neutrality” in Northern Ireland was first undermined by the ill-fated electoral alliance between the Tories and the Ulster Unionists.

In his latest memoir, the former Labour leader draws parallels with the deal between Conservatives and the DUP, accusing Theresa May of sacrificing non-partisanship for the sake of political expediency.

The space dedicated to Northern Ireland in ‘Gordon Brown – My Life, Our Times’ stretches to a handful of pages at most, focusing primarily on his role as prime minister during the negotiations on the devolution of policing and justice in 2009-2010.

He gives credit to his predecessor Tony Blair for negotiating the Good Friday Agreement but notes: “Northern Ireland was on the prime minister’s desk every day, every week and every month, and even ten years on it was a never-ending negotiation.”

Matters then were not helped, the former Labour leader says, by the fact that then First Minister Peter Robinson – unlike his predecessor Ian Paisley – “rarely” spoke to Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness.

“As usual, if there was going to be a deal, everything had to be agreed, or nothing was agreed,” he writes of the Hillsborough Castle negotiations.

“Matters on the agenda included – from the DUP – a new Parades Commission, a gratuity for thousands of Reserves in the Royal Ulster Constabulary, a Police Museum and a bail-out for the crisis-hit Presbyterian Mutual Building Society. And – from Sinn Féin – there were demands for a new Bill of Rights, support for the Irish language and pardons for past offenses.”

Mr. Brown recalls how the DUP negotiating tactic was to pass him from one senior party figure to another.

“And so it went on: never one negotiation but a round of negotiations.”

He notes how finance was always a key component in securing a deal between the DUP and Sinn Féin:

“No modern chancellor or prime minister could go to Belfast empty handed and survive.

“As I joked with our team, referencing Tony Blair’s famous remark before the Good Friday Agreement: ‘I feel the hand of history on my shoulders, and the hand of Peter Robinson in my pocket’.”

On helping broker the deal on policing and justice in early 2010, the former prime minister says he is clear on how the agreement was reached.

“When trouble flares up in Northern Ireland, I always remind myself of two basic preconditions that we forget at our peril if we are to maintain the peace: the UK as an honest broker, and having the Irish government as a partner,” he writes.

However, reflecting on a situation that has clear echoes of today’s Tory-DUP pact and the impasse at Stormont, Mr. Brown notes how ahead of the 2010 Westminster election a “new fuse had been lit which eventually undermined hopes of continued power-sharing between Northern Ireland’s opposing factions.

“The Conservatives and the Ulster Unionists entered a pact to stand in Northern Irish seats as the ‘Ulster Conservatives and Unionists – New Force’, at a stroke ending the long-standing neutrality that ensured both the main UK parties could be honest brokers in Northern Ireland disputes,” he writes.

“If Theresa May was later to mortgage that neutrality in a deal with the Democratic Unionist Party, David Cameron had already breached it with his pact.”