Peter Hain: “This government doesn’t get Northern Ireland”
Peter Hain fears the government understand Northern Ireland and is playing a dangerous game over its handling of Brexit and the Irish border. He talks to Gary Connor
Peter Hain has a lot on his mind at the moment. Which probably explains why, when I arrive to interview him for The House, he’s completely forgotten that we were due to meet.
“I can’t imagine how I didn’t put it in the calendar,” he says apologetically, explaining that the transition from being an MP to a member of the House of Lords has meant adjusting from having a staff of five or six, to managing his own diary. “I’m much more selective about what I do these days,” he adds, as we sit down in his office.
The one-time Labour MP for Neath, and cabinet stalwart during the Blair and Brown years, stood down from the House of Commons in 2015. A long-standing supporter of House of Lords reform – “I remain in favour of 80% elected, 20% appointed, on a secondary mandate” – his elevation came after a “surprise” conversation with Ed Miliband in 2014. The then Labour leader encouraged him to take a seat in the Lords because he needed peers “who are prepared to help with reforms” if he became prime minister.
Of course, that never happened, and with Lords reform one of the many non-Brexit related issues kicked into the long grass, Hain now finds himself an active and outspoken fixture on the red benches, using his position to press the issues that weigh heavily on his mind. Unsurprisingly, the majority of our discussion is taken up with Northern Ireland and Brexit.
Hain is one of a large number of peers seeking to make changes to the EU (Withdrawal) Bill. He has tabled an amendment to force the government to guarantee a frictionless Irish border and ensure that its obligations under the Good Friday Agreement are not breached. It has “genuine cross-party support”, he tells me, gaining the backing of former Conservative minister Baroness Altmann, Lib Dem Northern Ireland spokesperson Baroness Suttie and ex-civil service chief Lord Kerslake. Hain is confident that the amendment – “or something like it” – will be voted on when the bill reaches the report stage after Easter and will be carried.
Hain was Northern Ireland Secretary when the assembly was restored in 2007 after a gap of almost five years, following the power-sharing agreement between Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness. The collapse of the Stormont executive in January last year has left Northern Ireland in political limbo, and a return to devolution appears a distant prospect. Hain says the situation has left him “passionately and deeply, deeply disturbed”.
Last month, one of his successors as Northern Ireland secretary, Conservative MP Owen Paterson, tweeted a link to a Daily Telegraph article that claimed that the collapse of power-sharing proved that the Good Friday agreement had outlived its use.
Hain describes Paterson’s tweet as “repugnant, frankly”. “He’s adopting a kind of militantly hard-line opposition to the process that has ended the bombing and the killing. It’s unbelievable,” he says.
Hain explains that he has come to the conclusion that the Conservative party “does not know how to do Northern Ireland properly”, and says Theresa May has failed to engage in the same way as Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.
The prime minister made a short visit to Stormont in February, as talks between the DUP and Sinn Féin aimed at restoring power-sharing were under way. May’s intervention was later to be described as a “bit of a distraction” by DUP leader Arlene Foster. Less than 48 hours later, any prospect of a deal between the two sides was off the cards. “I think the fly in, fly out diplomacy – putting in an hour here, an hour there – is not the way to heal wounds and build consent,” Hain says.
While he says talk of any return to the Troubles is wide of the mark, he does fear that the current instability could play into the hands of extremists who want to see a return to violence, and urges May to prioritise peace on the island of Ireland above anything else. “If that means Brexit is put back by whatever period is necessary, then so be it,” he says. “I’m not suggesting that the Troubles are going to come back with all that evil and horror, but I do say that the government’s current policy is acting as a recruiting sergeant for the dissident IRA factions, who are armed and dangerous and have murdered since we got the 2007 settlement. They’re very isolated, they’re very marginalised, in the way the Provisional IRA wasn’t. I think it’s fraught with danger, this policy.”
Hain advises his most recent successor, Karen Bradley, to do all she can to get the prime minister to agree to a “genuine summit” to get things moving. “Engage with the parties, show respect to all the parties, because even DUP members who are propping up her government do not feel they have a proper relationship with her, nor with the government generally,” he says. “You talk to them in private and they will agree from the top down, this government doesn’t get Northern Ireland.”
Hain is careful to stress that it is not the role of the House of Lords to “frustrate the will of the people”. But the will of the people, he explains, does not extend to the type of hard Brexit the prime minister is pursuing. He and other peers, he argues, have a duty to change legislation to ensure Brexit happens on a “genuinely inclusive basis, not a sectarian, dogmatic, rigidly hard-right Brexit that we’re heading for now”.
Tempers have been running high during the committee stage in the Lords. The government’s 10 scheduled days of debate have recently been expanded to 11, with backbench debates on other topics cancelled, peers sitting late into the night and proceedings starting earlier, in order to make progress. At times, he admits, the debate has been less civil than is the usual custom. “There are some government ministers who are very good at feeling the mood of the house, and that isn’t happening on the bill at all,” he says. “There are a range of ministers who distinguish themselves by talking dogmatically or showing a rather arrogant indifference to the house.”
Hain’s pro-EU views are no secret. He tabled an amendment to the Article 50 bill which would have required the government to conduct Brexit negotiations on the basis of retaining single market membership – 32 of his fellow Labour peers backed him in the division lobby.
But Labour’s frontbench has pursued a different approach. Just this week, Jeremy Corbyn again reaffirmed the party’s official opposition to retaining single market membership.
Hain insists that there was no bad blood between him and the frontbench, and says that there is more unity in the Labour group on Europe than this time last year, when many were “deeply unhappy” with the leadership’s position. Labour’s recent shift towards maintaining a permanent customs union treaty with the EU has added to the consensus, he says.
And he hopes that further policy changes are ahead. “What we should be having is a one-nation Brexit that respects the fact that the referendum result was close,” he adds. “The country is divided down the middle. The sensible way to do it is to stay in the single market and customs union, to protect the economy and keep the Northern Ireland border open to respect the Good Friday agreement.”
He believes May is the first prime minister to “knowingly” pursue an agenda that is deeply damaging to the economy, and argues that Brexit is being managed to appease the “hard-right majority faction of the Conservative party” rather than in the national interest.
“That can’t be right and that’s why I think the bill will be quite significantly amended in the Lords.”