In his book, Outide In, Peter Hain was happy to acknowledge that finally getting the peace process going in Northern Ireland was his greatest achievement in office.
A child of the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, Hain was able to bring some of the lessons from that conflict to the Northern Ireland peace process. This meant particularly focusing on Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party players. He set out from the start to bring Ian Paisley senior into the process and played a key role in establishing a good rapore between the DUP leader and Sinn Fein.
Hain also insisted that he was always present in meetings between Tony Blair and the party negotiators. Previously, meetings with Martin McGuiness and Gerry Adams and other leaders had only included Blair and his chief of staff Jonathan Powell. Hain recalled the previous exclusion of secretary of states and being told by Mo Mowlem of how she made the tea at one summit.
Coming up to date Hain is concerned about the pressure being put on the Northern Ireland settlement by the present government's cuts agenda. He sees the high level of youth unemployment that now exists providing a potential reservoir of support for paramilitary groups if not addressed quickly.
“Some of the troubles around the parades could be exasperated by a situation where there are large numbers of young people without jobs and hope,” said Hain, who points out that while in British towns like London and Manchester this disillusion is likely to result in anti-social behaviour, in Northern Ireland the youth could get co-opted by small paramilitary groups.
Hain believes that the government needs to be particularly mindful of the effect the cuts could have in Northern Ireland, where the public sector remains the major employer. “I think this government has been conscious of the effects of the reckless cuts and attacks on those on the lowest and middle incomes in Northern Ireland. The size of the public sector makes Northern Ireland more vulnerable to the cuts,” said Hain, who believes the government has got totally the wrong economic recipe, cutting the public sector in the belief that the private sector will pick up the slack. Both are now struggling with growth falling.
He describes the Coalition Government as reckless with its cuts agenda and the way it has attacked those on low and middle incomes. The policies amount to a repeat of what happened in the 1930s cutting the public sector at a time when the private sector is too weak to revive. "They have no spending power to purchase," said Hain, who believes the lack of growth in the UK economy exposes the weakenss of the government's approach. "President Obama's approach in the US is more reflective of the Labour Party's approach, creating economic growth and jobs," said Peter, who contrasts Britain's 0.7 % growth with the 2.2% in America.
The former Cabinet minister believes it is the height of hypocricy for David Cameron and Nick Clegg to promote trade union rights in Iraq, Libya and Burma whilst attacking them at home in Britain.
Former head of research at the Union of Post Office Workers Hain remains proud of his trade union roots. "There is no true freedom in a world that does not have trade union rights entrenched," said Hain, who believes there is more to come in terms of the offensive against the labour movement with attacks likely to increase on the funding link between the unions and Labour Party.
Hain’s own journey from anti-apartheid protester to Cabinet minister forms a key part of his book. He recalls the words of South African author and anti-apartheid campaigner Alan Paton that he was not an all or nothing person but an all or something person. This became Hain’s political mantra throughout his political career. “An all or nothing person stays in and achieves nothing, I wanted to do something rather than just criticise,” said Hain.
Starting in the young liberals when he came to live with his family in the UK at the age of 15. Later he moved to Labour but has always held his liberal values dear.
A common criticism levelled at Hain is that he compromised his earlier ideals upon entering government. One incident that knocks his credentials as a trade unionist was a role played for government in 2001 when he went to European Council of Ministers to negotiate a delay on an employment directive that made companies consult employees before deciding on closures and redundancies. He recalls as a success getting a seven year phasinig in of the directive. "No 10 was pleased," recalled Hain.
Confronted with other contradictions, such as having his own parents put under banning orders in South Africa restricting their movements and who they could meet, yet 30 years later supporting control orders brought in by the Labour Government for terror suspects, he is dismissive. “The rule of law did not exist under apartheid, it was a police state. We had a very difficult situation post 9/11 with the Al Qaeda threat,” said Hain, who was equally dismissive of the comparison to South Africa over the 90 day pre-charge detention that existed there and Tony Blair tried to bring in under the Prevention of Terrorism Act in 2005. “I’m not saying we always got it right but the situation here was a world away from police coming in the middle of the night, picking you up and disappearing.”
The former Cabinet minister is more upbeat about Labour’s prospects under Ed Miliband than some of his colleagues. “The Labour Party under Ed Miliband is more in tune with my thinking than under previous leaders,” said Hain. “I think we are better placed than the pundits say to be the biggest party at the next election,” said Hain, who admits running for the deputy leadership of the Labour Party in 2007 was the biggest mistake of his political life.
He urges the opening up of policy making and developing a policy that is "radical, empowering, internationalist and green."
A strong supporter of devolution, in his book Hain outlines his role in helping to win a yes vote for devolution in Wales in the early days of the first Blair government. He later followed this up by devolving powers in Northern Ireland but he remains a steadfast opponent of Scottish independence. “I’ve always been a believer in decentralising power,” said Hain. “I oppose Scottish independence because it would diminish the rest of Britain. We would not be as strong in decision making arenas like the EU and UN. This is an era when big superpowers like China and India will have 1 billion people each in their countries. It does not make sense to reduce influence by hiving off small nations.”
In this context, the former Northern Ireland secretary welcomes the strength of alliance between Britain and Ireland. “The friendship between Britain and Ireland is enormously valuable; it is stronger now than at any time in history. We face common challenges over climate change and global competitiveness.”
A strong advocate of Tony Blair’s war in Iraq, Hain is perhaps surprisingly reluctant about taking similar action in Iran. “An attack on Iran would be disastrous but Iran must come in and co-operate,” said Hain, who sees the dangers of destabilising the whole region, not just Israel, if Iran were to get nuclear weapons. “Tehran has the capacity to start a nuclear arms race in the Middle East which would be disastrous,” said Hain.
*Outside In Peter Hain is published by Biteback Publishing, cost £20.
It is also available in e-form – www.bitebackpublishing.com