In his memoirs, Tony Blair did not have much good to say about his government's seven-year long struggle to ban fox hunting. The former PM, writing in 2010, admitted he deliberately sabotaged the 2004 Hunting Act to ensure there were enough loopholes to allow hunting to continue. Confessing that he initially agreed to a ban without properly understanding the issue, Blair wrote: 'If I’d proposed solving the pension problem by compulsory euthanasia for every fifth pensioner I’d have got less trouble. By the end of it, I felt like the damn fox.'
Yet while the Act applies to England and Wales – with similar legislation passed in Scotland in 2002 – no such ban exists in Northern Ireland, the only part of the UK where fox-hunting with hounds is still legal. However, all that could be about to change, thanks to another left-of-centre politician by the name of Blair: John Blair, a Stormont Assembly member proposing a private members' bill to ban the practice. The Alliance MLA is urging colleagues to back him on confining the 'barbaric pastime of blood sports' to the past', with his draft legislation set to get its second reading within the next four weeks.
But Mr S has been looking at the fine print of the proposed new law and fears Northern Ireland could be yet another part of the UK to be engulfed in various hunt-related legal shenanigans. According to section 6(3) in Blair's bill:
“In section 1 the reference to participation in the hunting of a wild mammal with a dog includes a reference to participation in another activity (such as pursuit by dogs of an artificial or human scent) in the course of which a dog hunts a wild mammal.
Farming groups and the Countryside Alliance are among those who fear that, under this proposal, ordinary dog owners could be criminalised through no fault of their own. Anyone whose dog runs off to chase a fox, rabbit or hare while they are out walking, shooting, checking their livestock or engaged in any other activity risks committing a criminal offence with a possible prison sentence. Woe betide any owners with a dog like Fenton...
And as with all things Ulster, the story with hunting risks is in danger of being embroiled in broader Irish questions. There are nationalist concerns that the changes in the north risk spilling over into the Republic of Ireland, where hunting is a big part of rural life. Both the Louth Foxhounds and the County Sligo Farmers Foxhounds have traditionally operated along the border, with the sport enjoying cross-community support.
Will Blair have better luck than his namesake? Only time will tell.