A leader in a hurry

IAN COLLINS Beware leaders in last-ditch efforts to secure their legacies, says Ian Collins, who would much prefer Tony Blair to be singing with the Bee Gees.


When William Jefferson Clinton was ending eight tumultuous years in the White House, world leaders jammed Oval Office phonelines to pay him gushing compliments both sincere and phoney.

"Mr President, you are a great man," said Yasser Arafat.

"No, I'm not," replied Mr Clinton. "I'm the failure you made me."

Bill Clinton - whose IQ is said to be twice that of his successor - really is a great man in my book, and when he turns a formidable brain to a forbidding problem it can be quite a match.

His big push at the end of his presidency was for a resolution of the wretched conflict between Israel and the country that should be Palestine.

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With the US leader's intelligence and diligence - and the added bravery of Israeli premier Ehud Barak - an imperfect but viable peace plan was painfully put together. It fell apart when Mr Arafat finally drew back from signing it.

Mr Barak was smashed, his Labour Party crushed. Revolted by the epic corruption of the Arafat Fatah faction dominating the PLO, Palestinians turned to the truly revolting Hamas. Bill Clinton was left to learn from his greatest defeat.

But Mr Clinton is exceptional. Beware the danger of lesser politicians in a dash to erase tarnished reputations by securing their "legacy" during last months in office.

A Clinton presidency would never have led us into the utter disaster of today's Iraq. This is the catastrophe for which Tony Blair will be remembered.

While not diminishing all the domestic messes our PM has made, with this most fatal folly Britain lost its moral authority abroad.

Now trying to overcome that vast blot of blood on his copybook, Mr Blair is in overdrive - clutching at anything to hand, and seizing on Northern Ireland.

Fantastic strides have been made in recent years in ending four centuries of hostility between Catholics and Protestants in Ulster. Much of this work was done during the very supportive Clinton era (George Bush has been silent on the subject).

But the problem of policing remains. Mr Blair says that hard statements show Sinn Fein and the Paisleysites playing to their sectional constituencies. Maybe a bigger worry lies in playing to the PM's personal timetable.

Normally far more information is imparted by print journalism than by broadcasters, but I was very grateful for TV footage of a recent Sinn Fein meeting in Dublin - giving us more than the usual sight of Gerry Adams with the ghost of a cynical smirk. For I've never seen so many thuggish faces gathered in one small room.

The Northern Ireland Police Service is now a theoretical model of inclusivity, and in practice Catholics are steadily joining. Soon they will form a quarter of the force.

But most crime in and from Ireland is by former paramilitaries - with the Adams provos lately blamed for cutting a man's throat in a Belfast bar, beatings, bank robbery and training "leftist" drug-runners in Colombia. In still-blighted parts of otherwise booming Ulster they operate a gigantic protection racket.

Sentimentality is the first preserve of cruel people, and while nationalism so often drips bloodied sugar, Irish nationalism oozes with it. Blarney and baloney are very properly close in the dictionary.

Born in civil war, the Irish Free State was nothing of the kind. Harassment of Protestants (a fifth of the population in 1920), anti-Semitism, neutrality to Nazism and terrible abuse by a brutal Catholic church was coupled with the cronyism of a reactionary ruling clique.

After an economic "miracle" based on massive EU subsidies, Ireland has been transformed in the past two decades, with property prices now even madder than our own. Though its politics can still be a tad dodgy, the old kind of Catholicism - and, indeed, the church itself - is all but dead.

Once the rich bit of Ireland, Ulster is now the poor relation. No wonder the prospect of closer kinship is no longer so scary.

But Tony Blair in a hurry terrifies me. This man has wizard new ideas as fast as he drops the old ones.

Out go last week's initiatives in the pursuit of renewed "leadership". But the principle of fair policing must be above and beyond even the most frantic politicking.

After Christmas in Florida with a brother Gibb - Tee Bee meets Bee Gee - the PM has returned to Downing Street in a N-N-Night Fever of choreographed activity.

I laughed aloud when he dashed from a limo brandishing that red despatch case designed to show all us oiks at home that a Very Important Person was now grappling with a Very Important Problem.

Ham acting is not enough. As the PM sprinted indoors to call Ulster, I wondered why it had been thought that telephone lines wouldn't stretch from Miami.

It's just all gone on too long. As Claire Rayner said this week - giving a new twist to the term 'agony' aunt: "Whenever I see Tony Blair, I think, 'May your genitals wither'."

I'm not a violent or vengeful person but I know what she means. And seeing that Mr Blair is about to seek a new job, what better than singing falsetto with the Bee Gees?