12 May 2005 Edition
Who is Peter Hain?
BY FERN LANE
By my reckoning, the North of Ireland is now on its 15th secretary of state since the introduction of direct rule in 1972, beginning with William Whitelaw [of whom Margaret Thatcher famously said - and without a trace of irony, so don't go thinking that she has a sense of humour or anything — "every Prime Minister needs a Willie"] to the present incumbent Peter Hain, MP for Neath, Wales.
Whether he makes a better of fist of it than his predecessors remains to be seen, but his task of re-assembling the Assembly when faced with dealing with the congenital bullies of the DUP, who appear to equally determined to permanently disassemble it, is likely to make his watch a particularly difficult and extremely time-consuming one.
No wonder that the Welsh are, to put it tactfully, somewhat annoyed that in addition to his new role Hain will also remain the Secretary of State for Wales. His declaration that the Six Counties will be his absolute priority has provoked stern criticism from the valleys. A Secretary of State for Wales for whom Wales is not a priority? No wonder they're angry. Perhaps it will make the electorate look again at Plaid Cymru and wonder if the Party of Wales mightn't be a better bet next time around.
So far as secretaries of states for the Six Counties go, however, Hain's personal history is unusual and, superficially at least, suggests that he might have a slightly better understanding of the causes of conflict in the North of Ireland — that is, if the New Labour project of which he has been so integral a part has not robbed him entirely of his earlier political credentials.
Hain was born in Nairobi, Kenya, to South African parents who were committed anti-Apartheid activists. Under white rule, they were declared 'banned persons' in South Africa and were harassed by the authorities, being imprisoned for a short time. In 1966, when Hain was still a teenager, the family moved permanently to London and Hain himself became an active campaigner against Apartheid, also supporting Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe's struggle to overcome minority rule. In London, he campaigned vigorously against England rugby and cricket tours of South Africa. In 1977, he became a founder member of the Anti-Nazi League and left the Liberal Party to join Labour, finally being elected as an MP in a by-election in 1991, after having worked for the Union of Communications Workers from some years.
Since then, Hain's rise through the ranks has been steady and uncontroversial and he has rarely referred back to his time as a genuine political activist — aside from regularly berating Robert Mugabe, who has responded by labelling him a "racist". He has also alienated the left with his unflagging support for the Blair Government's attack on civil liberties by claiming that Britain would be "safer under labour if we are tough on crime and terrorism". Like Peter Mandelson before him, he is not known to have offered any view on Ireland prior to his appointment as secretary of state, but he has in the past spoken out against the use of plastic bullets.
We can but hope, then, that his buried memories of fighting the inequalities of the Apartheid system, his opposition to white minority rule in Zimbabwe, his time as a trades unionist — and the fact that in more recent time that he called for joint sovereignty of Gibraltar with Spain — might just resurface as he faces the present reality of life in the Six Counties.
Oh, and he might also recall the time, way back in 1976, when he was fitted up by South African Intelligence agents for involvement in a bank robbery he did not commit.
British Direct Rulers since 1972
• William Whitelaw (24 March 1972- 2 December 1973)
• Francis Pym (2 December 1973 - 4 March 1974)
• Merlyn Rees (5 March 1974 - 10 September 1976)
• Roy Mason (10 September 1976 - 4 May 1979)
• Humphrey Atkins (5 May 1979 - 14 September 1981)
• James Prior (14 September 1981 - 11 September 1984)
• Douglas Hurd (11 September 1984 - 3 September 1985)
• Tom King (3 September 1985 - 24 July 1989)
• Peter Brooke (24 July 1989 - 10 April 1992)
• Sir Patrick Mayhew (10 April 1992 - 2 May 1997)
• Mo Mowlam (3 May 1997 - 11 October 1999)
• Peter Mandelson (11October 1999 - 24 January 2001)
• John Reid (25 January 2001 - 24 October4 2002)
• Paul Murphy (24 October 2002 - 6 May 2005)
• Peter Hain (6 May 2005 - )