When Tony and Cherie Blair made their way up Downing Street on May 2 1997, glad-handing their jubilant Union flag-waving supporters, you could be forgiven for assuming the new prime minister’s only tenuous connection to Northern Ireland was his theme tune.
Things Can Only Get Better pumped out of every loudspeaker at New Labour rallies after Blair’s spin doctors decided the D:Ream track, written by Derry’s Peter Cunnah, captured the mood for change across the UK.
If you were a Blair admirer living in Northern Ireland, you weren’t allowed to join the party until 2006 (even then Labour made the move so grudgingly it banned me from filming would-be members handing in application forms at the party conference, and still doesn’t fight elections in Northern Ireland).
Yet, surprisingly, I found my job there as the BBC’s Ireland Correspondent an excellent vantage point to get a close-up view of the new PM in action. Blair made his first visit to Belfast within a fortnight of taking power and, with the IRA yet to restore its broken ceasefire, he instantly grasped the risks and opportunities presented by the fragile peace process.
With an extraordinary 93 per cent approval rating and a 179-seat parliamentary majority, Blair proved willing to spend his time and political capital in Northern Ireland. He won the trust of key players from sceptical Unionists to grizzled Republicans, from old paramilitaries to the smooth US President Bill Clinton.
Blair’s self-belief enabled him to close the Good Friday Agreement deal within a year of coming to power. He later transferred that same messianic zeal, coupled with his undoubted diplomatic skills, to foreign policy, pioneering a new doctrine of “humanitarian intervention” which paid dividends in Sierra Leone and Kosovo, before irrevocably tarnishing his “pretty straight sort of guy” image as he partnered George W Bush in his blood-soaked misadventure in Iraq.