Northern Ireland

May 1, 1998

Tony Blair's government is one year old today. What challenges lie ahead, what has it achieved so far and, if Labour celebrates ten years in power, how will Britain look in 2007? The experts give their verdicts.

From the Northern Ireland perspective, Good Friday's Belfast agreement overshadows all other achievements. This agreement owes much to others as well as to this government, but Mo Mowlam and Tony Blair made special contributions. Mowlam came to office unprecedently well-prepared and thus won an affectionate esteem that conferred a freedom to be different and some protection when people thought she had erred. Blair's ability to befriend the allegedly "irascible" David Trimble and his reinforcement of George Mitchell's deadline were crucial.

Northern Ireland in 2007

If this agreement is accepted by NI voters in the referendum on May 22, it will mean that future Labour governments will govern Ulster in the area of "high politics". A devolved assembly will become responsible for the domestic policymaking undertaken by executive and administrative means. The assembly will have to ensure institutions and policies meet equality and human rights standards and will have an input into EU affairs. The assembly will be represented on councils dealing with North-South and British-Irish matters.

The agreement's innovations may also inspire a "new Unionism". On BBC Radio Ulster, Blair empathised with fears of change in NI by referring to the travails of his own party. Trimble's deputy, too, John Taylor, is explicit that the time has come for a new Unionism - more inclusive and pluralist. Could relations between "new Labour" and the unions foreshadow those between a "new Unionism" and the Orange Order?

Elizabeth Meehan is professor of politics, Queen's University, Belfast.

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