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From the NS archive: Still on the edge of terror

22 May 1998: Irish republicans have at last accepted partition. That is the true meaning of the Good Friday agreement. But is the price too high for the unionists?

By John Lloyd

On 10 April 1998, the Good Friday Agreement was signed, bringing an end to the Troubles that had plagued Northern Ireland for decades. The agreement was ratified by most of the province’s political parties and dealt with such themes as paramilitary groups, sovereignty, justice and future governance. It paved the way for a devolved government in the country. In this piece, republished in April 2023 to mark the 25th anniversary of the agreement, John Lloyd looked at the negotiating tactics and horse-trading used by both republicans and unionists, and the numerous ways the discussions could have fallen apart. The fact that some form of working consensus had been reached was a triumph, agreed Lloyd, but that did not mean the representatives of all interested groups would be able to keep their members to the terms of the agreement. Caution was still required.


A referendum in Northern Ireland, on the document known as “the agreement”, takes place today. There will be another in the Republic of Ireland, on the replacement of two articles in the constitution which lay claim to the north. The Catholics in the north and the electorate in the south are expected, probably overwhelmingly, to vote “yes”; the doubts are over the extent of northern unionist support. Yet on the face of it, the unionists could hardly have expected more from the agreement. It explicitly states that Northern Ireland will remain British as long as the majority wish it. If the two referenda produce positive results, they would seem to give the Northern Irish unionist majority the most explicit guarantees of continued British citizenship it has had in 80 years.

Most remarkably, Sinn Féin, the political wing of the IRA, has admitted, very quietly, that it has agreed to recognise the partition of Ireland. In an interview with the scholar Paul Bew immediately after the talks, Sinn Féin’s chairman, Mitchell McLaughlin, admitted that “the negative [aspect] from the republican point of view is that [the agreement] does to an extent, legitimise the British state in Ireland.” This is an extraordinary statement: after 30 years of murder, Sinn Féin has granted legitimacy to the very thing it was dedicated to destroying. And that looks like a huge triumph for David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist leader who, alone of the major Northern Irish party leaders, personally negotiated through two years of on-off talks to achieve this end.

So why are the unionists so full of doubt and foreboding? Why is Trimble not a hero to his community? For the answer, we have to go back to the last, feverish days of the peace talks, which ended on Good Friday with a fanfare of triumph. In those final days, the unionist negotiators achieved everything they could reasonably expect on the constitution. But exhausted and under pressure from everyone up to the US president, they conceded a range of measures which have haunted the debate ever since.

[See also: Why Ireland still haunts the Tories]

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When the serious phase of the talks began just before Christmas, Bertie Ahern, the Irish prime minister, agreed with Trimble that the Republic would drop the constitutional claim – a claim which, until then, it had refused to alter in any way. That alone was a historic development, but in the endgame of the talks Trimble got more. The Irish government and the main northern nationalist party, the DLP, had hoped to make the north-south ministerial council “executive”. But what McLaughlin calls the “controlling input” of the Northern Ireland assembly (a unionist-dominated body, for certain) will prevent the council developing into the embryo all-Irish government that the republicans had demanded.

The Irish government seems content with this outcome. One of its senior officials confided afterwards that his administration wanted “the northern nationalists to integrate into the British state, at least for a generation – and after that, who knows?” Trimble thus secured a deal which had eluded all of his predecessors. But the paramilitaries – principally the IRA, but also the loyalist groups – demanded a price for peace. Trimble agreed to pay it. Several issues were raised, uncompromisingly, in that last week. They included demands for reviews: of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and of the criminal justice system. Though worrying for unionists, who are much more attached than others in the UK to law and order, these two issues are not yet urgent.

The unionists can draw some comfort from the appointment of a Conservative politician and former Northern Ireland minister, Chris Patten, to head the commission on the RUC. The big sticking points for ordinary unionists are what they see as rewards for the paramilitary groups on both the republican and the loyalist sides. Though some regard the paramilitaries as heroes, most see them as violent, criminal gangsters, deeply involved in the drug trade; the more so since a crackdown on public works contracts and extortion cut off other sources of funds. But the paramilitaries were powerful; a Sinn Féin walkout could prompt an end to the IRA ceasefire.

On the other side, the two groups representing the loyalist paramilitary organisations – the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) led by David Ervine and the Ulster Democratic Party (UDP) led by Gary McMichael ­– had to be kept in the talks to give the Ulster Unionists any prospect of being able to deliver a majority of the unionist vote. The UDP demonstrated its power at the very end of the talks. Ulster Unionist negotiators told McMichael that they had got agreement with the DLP that there should be 90 seats in the new assembly, and no more. “We have not been here for two years,” said McMichael, “to get nothing.” He demanded that the assembly have at least 108 seats, calculating that this would be enough to give his party at least one assembly member, even though that meant 11 more seats for nationalists.

[See also: The rewards of diplomacy]

The PUP, more than the UDP, made little secret of its identity of interest with the extremists on the other side. It was quite willing to be friendly with Sinn Féin. “The two groups were always in the bar together,” said a talks participant. “In fact, one night the loyalists drank the bar dry.” What most energised the paramilitaries was the accelerated release for “their” prisoners, many of whom were serving long sentences for murder. In the final week the Ulster Unionists were forced down from their insistence that no prisoners should be released early. The unionists agreed they could be released within three years. Then, as the pressure mounted, the unionists agreed to release within two years, on the understanding that the decommissioning of weapons would also occur within two years.

The unionists entered this part of the agreement with deep reluctance. The Ulster Unionist MP Jeffrey Donaldson (who after some agonising has come out against the agreement) pointed out a man who had murdered policemen in cold blood would be out years before one who killed his wife in a passion. Worse was still to come. The Ulster Unionists insisted on the last day that the agreement should include an important clause: that those linked to violence should not be allowed to serve in the new Northern Ireland administration. The Sinn Féin delegates packed their bags and made ready to walk out. They were induced to stay for one more heave.

Gerry Adams called the White House and asked for President Clinton. A disbelieving secretary asked him to describe the waiting room and the Oval Office before being convinced that he was indeed Adams and that she should put the call through. Clinton then called Trimble to try to pressure him into accepting that the renunciation of violence and decommissioning could not be explicitly linked in the agreement, and had to be dealt with elsewhere. But by then Trimble had already accepted that he could not win the point.

As the exhausted Ulster Unionist negotiating team reviewed what they had won and lost, and Trimble faced questioning on the issue, he said: “It’s gone; forget it.” Ken Maginnis, the party’s security spokesman (and himself a former Ulster Defence Regiment officer) then made a speech, saying that the agreement was a hard one, but it had to be swallowed: “We have to take control here,” said Maginnis. “Successive secretaries of state have treated us like shit; it’s time to take control ourselves.” Trimble picked up his point, and rammed it home; the assembly gave the province’s politicians the chance to settle their own destinies. Trimble, however, did manage to get Blair to write a letter (which was published) assuring him that members of the assembly still linked to violent groups that had not handed in their weapons would not be allowed to serve in a cabinet.

Blair had come to admire Trimble; and Trimble trusted Blair. On the last day, as they all sat round the table, Blair passed Trimble a note, which read: “I will do everything in my power to help you.” By contrast, the unionists came to dislike and distrust Mo Mowlam, the Northern Ireland Secretary. Though she had guided the talks for the past year, and received high praise from the Prime Minister for keeping the show on the road, her embrace of republicans and lack of concern for detail angered the unionists. In the last days, she was entirely side­lined; negotiations were conducted largely between Blair, Ahern and Trimble.

Early in the morning of the last day, two of the negotiators saw Mowlam, incoherent with exhaustion and the medication she takes to cope with the aftermath of cancer treatment, being helped down the stairs by an official. She compounded her unpopularity in unionist eyes by her decision to allow out on parole (to which they were entitled) two of those convicted for murders in London’s Balcombe Street over 20 years ago so that they could attend the Sinn Féin conference in Dublin; and also, later in the week, to release Michael Stone who, ten years before, had slaughtered Catholics in a Belfast cemetery. The sight of these men being feted by their comrades struck most unionists as revolting.

Blair’s last-minute efforts to bolster Trimble were insufficient. In response to unionists’ fears, most forcefully voiced by Jeffrey Donaldson, the Prime Minister last week promised to bring forward legislation to make explicit that no one linked to violence could serve in a Northern Ireland administration. In effect, Donaldson has been continuing the negotiation past the conclusion of the agreement; faxes were going to and fro between the Unionist MP and Blair’s entourage as the latter was preparing to host the G8 summit in Birmingham.

In a speech last week, Blair used many of the same words Donaldson had put in a letter to the Prime Minister. In one passage Donaldson insists that “those who have used the twin tactics of the ballot box and the Armalite [must be] forced to choose clearly and without the aid of any fudge between democracy and terror.” Blair said that “those who have used the twin tactics of ballot box and the gun must make a clear choice. There can be no fudge between democracy and terror.” But in vain. Donaldson remains disaffected and, with him, a large number of his fellow unionists.

The great irony of the agreement is that while its sweeteners are republican, its substance is unionist. Unionists cannot bring themselves, after 30 years, to see republicans being sweetened; and that may split the unionist vote, split the Ulster Unionist Party and produce a divided, fractious assembly. Even if the agreement is agreed today, the fight will go on.

[See also: What does Rishi Sunak gain from the Northern Ireland deal?]

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