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From the NS archive: Ulster’s heart-stopping moment

3 April 1998: Peace talks are reaching a conclusion, but can nationalist and unionist leaders persuade their supporters to accept it?

By John Lloyd

This article, by the then NS associate editor John Lloyd, was first published on 3 April 1998, in the week when peace talks in Northern Ireland were due to conclude. It has been republished in 2023 to mark 25 years since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, a pair of deals that ended most of the violence of the Troubles, which had been going on since the late 1960s. The agreement informed Northern Ireland’s devolved system of government, which is still in place today.


Some years ago, a youth club from the Irish Republic and one from the Protestant area of east Belfast agreed to hold a joint social occasion on the latter’s territory. The Irish group wrote to the Protestant club that it wished to present a programme of Irish dances, songs and music.

The note caused consternation. How were the Protestants to reciprocate? For while Irish folk culture was best preserved and performed on these islands, the culture associated with the Protestants was defensively sectarian. They could hardly belt out “The sash my father wore” after a sensitively rendered lament or a cheerful jig.

Finally, they settled on hiring a karaoke machine, so that they could sing (nonsectarian) pop songs with the aid of musical backing. They did – but the machine broke down, leaving them more bereft than ever.

The story could be the gleeful property of an Irish nationalist, intent on showing that the northern Protestants had lost a culture and failed to find a stable national home. But it is told by Arthur Aughey, a northern unionist writer and scholar – who heard it from a unionist councillor in Belfast. Aughey uses it as a kind of self-deprecating opening to his view that unionists owe “loyalty” to a Britishness defined as a set of artificially created constitutional arrangements that have no essential, primordial base – unlike nationalism, which assumes that there must be an identity between the nation and the government, with the latter an ethnic expression of the former. Britishness allows the possession of multiple identities: Irish, British, European; nationalism is exclusive.

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But this is not a happy-ending story. When the present troubles began 30 years ago, 20 per cent of Northern Irish Protestants defined themselves as Irish (as well as British); now, less than 3 per cent do. At the same time, they have come to lose faith in the sustainability of their position; they have become alienated from politics, pessimistic, doleful.

[See also: Why Ireland still haunts the Tories]

These people now wait for their political representatives (about whom, according to recent voting patterns, they are less and less enthusiastic) to agree to or reject a deal at the end of this week. The “talks process” has been going for nearly two years, but the two sides have talked mainly to the British government rather than directly to each other.

None of the politicians who are sweating their way towards, or away from, an agreement by the given date of 9 April is under greater pressure than David Trimble, leader of the Official Unionists. Trimble has most to lose; for in 30 years the Unionists have already lost a parliament that they dominated, a certainty that their cause was supported by the UK parliament, a firm if disputed border between Ulster and the Republic and a belief in the supremacy of their religion, symbols and way of life. They want from a settlement an assurance of the preservation of the state; but Trimble, the only one of the Unionist political leaders in the talks, is not sure if he can give them something in which they can place their trust.

Trimble is alone because Dr Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionists and Robert McCartney’s UK Unionists believed from the start that the talks were a snare and delusion. Their best case had been the government’s renunciation of its announced intention to force the paramilitary groups to disarm first before, then during the talks. But now, as “the process” has become more intense, and the British government has extended more and more leeway to Sinn Fein to keep it in the talks, even as evidence mounts that the anti-unionist terrorism is carried out at least with IRA connivance, Paisley and McCartney have become more vocal. They are not at one: McCartney did not accompany Paisley on a series of rallies across the province designed to whip up opposition to whatever issues from the talks. But they agree that Trimble weakens the cause by dignifying the talks with his presence. Paisley said last week: “I will never hold joint action with the Unionist Party while David Trimble is its leader.”

More worrying for Trimble are the chords Paisley and McCartney strike within his own party. He commands ten Unionist MPs; “commands” is overstretching it, because the Unionist Party’s constitution sets each one up as semiautonomous, with the party as a weak central body. Trimble was not the choice of the MPs, but of the party members – and the harder-line ones, at that. His willingness to enter the talks and to bear, even if under protest, the shifts that Mowlam has made to keep Sinn Fein in, the receptions accorded to Gerry Adams and his comrades in Downing Street and the constant taunting of Adams that he will not talk to Sinn Fein across the negotiating table have taken the toll of an anyway thin loyalty. Two of his MPs – William Ross and William Thompson – are openly mutinous; another four or five doubtful. Even if in the course of the next week Trimble got something he might himself think of as a reasonable basis for a settlement, he would find it very hard indeed to sell it to his party. And impossible to sell to the Paisley and McCartney supporters.

[See also: Keir Starmer plays divide and conquer with Northern Ireland deal]

But he is not alone in feeling the heat. The Social Democratic and Labour Party still carries the badge of peaceful nationalism but does so in the grim awareness that its base is reducing. Sinn Fein was within ten points of it at the last election and has grown since, according to the polls. Of its two remaining MPs (neither in good health), John Hume, the leader, remains determined to get a deal Sinn Fein can swallow; while Seamus Mallon, more sceptical and less apparently insouciant that the party’s base is being eaten away, is unable or unwilling to challenge Hume’s strategy.

The logic of this seems to be that Gerry Adams holds the whip hand on the nationalist side. However, when I suggested that at a gathering at which SDLP representatives were present, one – Councillor John Fee – snapped that “we will do what is right, and if it means accepting a settlement to which Sinn Fein cannot agree, then we will do it”. His words pointed to at least a strain within the party: one that will be tested in this coming week as Trimble seeks to turn the heat on Hume, with whom he has always said he can do a deal.

On one view, Adams has succeeded brilliantly. Sean O’Callaghan, the IRA defector whose book on the organisation, The Informer, is about to be published, says that Adams has planned the steady advance meticulously, with an acute sense of how to use violence, the threat of violence and the promise of co-operation to keep three governments – the British, Irish and American – and the Northern Irish parties all on the hop. In the past two years in which he has been largely inside “the process” and in which a ceasefire however rickety has generally officially held, he has seen his electoral support burgeon outside of the working-class Catholic enclaves into the middle class; one can, as they now say, drive a BMW and vote for Adams.

His success is not confined to the north. For long marginalised in the south Sinn Fein now has one TD (member of the Dáil) and came a close second in half a dozen other seats. His exposure as a peacemaker, welcomed in the White House and displayed on the media in Britain, the US and Ireland, has made of him a star more radiant than any of the little-known southern politicians.

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

But he, too, faces a choice harder in principle than any in his long career both as a terrorist and a peacemaker [Adams denies ever being a member of the IRA]. He has recognised that the settlement cannot conceivably deliver a united Ireland, which is what he took up the gun to gain. If he is to at least acquiesce in what is on offer at the end of this week, then he must make a case that the deal is not closed, that “the process” continues and that next year, or the next, the nationalists will be back for more and will get it. A leak to the Financial Times last Saturday seemed to bode well for this; a source within the British government floated the idea of five-yearly referendums on the status of the province as part of the UK. If it has a basis, it would be a clear inducement for an operator as skilled as Adams to stir up the alarm and fear he believes will sooner or later induce the Protestants to agree to Irish unity, and the British to cease to support them in hanging on to anything else.

The very success of his strategy, however, displays the weaknesses of it. Sinn Fein, in the North, is a battle-hardened, extremist terrorist organisation; one as skilled at using violence against defectors in its own community – the murder of Catholic policemen, the knee-capping of suspected informers – as it is in engaging and evading the British military. It is also, increasingly, a party of councillors and activists, which makes an appeal to people who do not like or approve of the use of violence. The deal will certainly include an assembly for Northern Ireland; Sinn Fein would dilute the purity of its opposition to the Northern Irish state if it sat in an assembly (dominated by unionists, almost certainly) set up to run it. But, says the southern Sinn Fein councillor Cionnaith O Suilleabhain, “I believe we’ll probably go into an assembly after a while”. Could Adams get that kind of parliamentarism past men who want one more heave of violence to force the Brits out?

Sinn Fein’s success north and south has made the Irish governing party more fearful. It has also landed Bertie Ahern, the Irish Taoiseach, with his largest challenge since taking office, with a tiny majority for his coalition government, last year. Sinn Fein candidates came a close second in a handful of constituencies, including Dublin South-West, held by the Fianna Fail TD Conor Lenihan – of all the deputies the one closest to Sinn Fein. Lenihan was among the parliamentarians who met with Ahern last week to express their concern over changes in the Irish constitution, and was only partially reassured. “If we go into an election as the party that dropped the claim to the north, people like me could lose to Sinn Fein. That’s the bottom line for the party. Fianna Fail is the republican party; the Brits have to deal with us, and we have a record as a party of peace and constitutional rule. Do they want to see a government dependent on Sinn Fein?”

But Ahern has his place in history – and the indifference of his voters – to consider, too. The north is not a matter of much concern to most Irish people, according to polls; the residual feeling for a completion of the national agenda is balanced, increasingly, with a desire to get an embarrassing affair settled. Northern nationalists are a different breed, seen as stiff-necked and awkward like their Protestant counterparts, as well as foolishly fundamentalist in their republicanism. To “solve” the north could bolster Ahern greatly, have him lauded as a statesman in the UK and in the US, and make a second election more likely. He has a good relationship with Tony Blair and has even succeeded in winning a grudging conditional trust from Trimble. He is assisted in being no great nationalist ideologue, in presiding over a booming economy and in leading the more nationalist of the two main parties.

The British hold the ring and must make the most complex calculations. Blair has given Northern Ireland a good deal of attention. He has drawn on his credit with the US to ensure that Washington is supportive and has kept in close touch with Trimble even while inviting Adams and his entourage in to Downing Street. He wants a settlement soon and thinks he can get one: he sees the issue as one of common sense and believes that if dogma can give way to sense a deal is there. He has made it clear that he sees no prospect of a united Ireland in his lifetime, or even in that of his children; within that, he is prepared for flexibility.

If Ahern has indifference as his friend, Blair has it as his spur. The Labour MP for Warrington, Helen Jones, said at a conference on Ireland this past weekend that those most concerned with “the process” should never forget the weariness with which people on the British mainland greet discussion of Ireland: “‘Let them sort it out themselves,’ that’s the attitude,” said Jones. “People want a settlement on more or less any terms.”

So what is on the table? Details are changing constantly as the talks enter into a phase of great intensiveness. But some broad elements seem clear.

First, the Irish government has agreed in principle to amend articles two and three of its constitution so radically that, according to insiders, it no longer amounts to a claim for the north. This is a large gamble by Ahern, but polling evidence published over last weekend indicates that the electorate would back a change in the constitution if it were seen to bring a cessation of the troubles.

Second, the institution on which nationalists placed most weight – a north-south body that would see issues of common concern being decided jointly by the Northern Irish and Dublin governments – has been rendered much less alarming than unionists feared. It is sketched out in the Framework Document, which provides a context for the talks, as one that could have an executive role, and is widely viewed by Unionists as a stalking horse for an all-Irish government; but its present form is “implementational”, a form meant to suggest that it will be wholly subordinate to the Northern Irish assembly, a condition on which Trimble has always insisted.

[See also: The rewards of diplomacy]

Third, there will be a “Council of the Islands”, a body that will bring together, perhaps two or more times a year, parliamentarians from Westminster, the Dáil and the Northern Irish, Welsh and Scots assemblies. The powers of this will be limited to persuasion and influence; but it gives Trimble an “east-west dimension”, which he has often called for.

Finally, the Northern Irish assembly will be power-sharing and elected proportionately, which will mean that representatives of minority parties will take committee chairs, or regional ministerships, in proportion to their electoral performance. The last regional parliament, Stormont, abolished more than 15 years ago, had no nationalist ministers and for much of its life no nationalist MPs (since they refused to take their seats). That agreement is, in principle, possible for a body in which nationalists and unionists can contemplate working together is a massive step for the unionists – and for nationalists, although for them it has the double-edged quality of yielding power at the price of recognition of an independent statehood which they would deny.

It is this that the SDLP, as the largest nationalist party, must swallow; and which Hume, if he remains true to his form over the past five years, must induce Adams to accept. Many constitutional nationalists are likely to take this on board, in part because they believe (though the evidence is mixed) that Catholics will be more numerous than Protestants in the early years of the new millennium, and that this will translate into a majority of nationalist votes and thus a peaceful, if delayed, transition to Irish unity. But they will be under pressure from a resurgent militant nationalism of the “one more heave” school, which may believe that a little more terror could finish the job more quickly.

Trimble faces, over the next few days, the most agonising choice. He will be subject to enormous pressure to recommend the emerging deal to his fractious and suspicious party. Tony Blair, Bertie Ahern and Bill Clinton will all add their weight. He will be told that the time will never be as propitious as now; that British public opinion will not be with him if he refuses; even that the deal could be put to the people over his head, attended by a media campaign designed to get a yes vote in the promised referendum.

His mood varies. At times he thinks the deal, with further refining, good enough to recommend; at other moments he fears it will not pass his party. The old cry of “No surrender!” is still being voiced by Paisley and others, and still has some resonance, especially among those who feel republican hot breath on their necks. If he fails, the rapidly approaching marching season could be mayhem. By the end of the week 30 years of struggle could have a hope of resolution – or the promise of a turn for the worse, yet again.

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

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