Agreeing to differ

David Trimble takes issue with a Blairite view of the Good Friday Agreement

Great Hatred, Little Room: Making peace in Northern Ireland by Jonathan Powell 338pp, Bodley Head, £20

The Guardian 05 April 2008

“We had struggled for four years to implement the Good Friday Agreement by giving a few concessions to one side and then a few to the other in the hope that we could build trust between the sides . . . but . . . the process had become badly discredited and morally undermined. It no longer seemed based on principle.” So writes Jonathan Powell of the suspension of the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive in October 2002

Unfortunately Powell (Tony Blair’s chief of staff) failed to make the connection between his (and Blair’s) conduct and the outcome. He was also mistaken in his belief that the objective was to build trust, which is over-rated and frequently misplaced. The issue in politics is, rather, can you do business with the other side?

The objective was to implement the Good Friday Agreement, which itself was clearly rooted in principle. It repeatedly insisted on the use of exclusively peaceful and democratic means — the disarmament of paramilitary groups was merely the corollary of that principle.

The government’s objectives should also have included keeping its promises. Blair’s letter to me on the afternoon of the agreement in 1998 offered support for the strengthening of the provisions for the exclusion of a party from holding office and said that decommissioning should start in June. In this book Powell says he typed that letter but failed to save it so that years later, when he wanted to know what was in it, he had to ask us for a copy. I do not believe that in 1998 he wiped his, or the government’s memory of the content of the letter. We had previously been offered a start date for decommissioning by the government, and we insisted that the letter was circulated before the agreement was made. But it is no surprise to read that, later in 1998, the Northern Ireland Office was suggesting that the government drop its insistence on decommissioning.

Blair included a promise that prisoners would not be released unless violence was given up for good in the pledges publicly written and signed by him during the referendum on the agreement. But when republicans were guilty of acts of violence, including murder, later in the year, his secretary of state for Northern Ireland was allowed to dismiss them as “internal housekeeping” — an implied licence to kill.

Blair could have borne down on both issues by making prisoner release conditional or by excluding Sinn Fein from office. In 1999 Blair did explore exclusion of Sinn Fein but had to modify it to the suspension of the Assembly and executive because moderate nationalists made it clear that they would not serve in an administration without the inclusion of republicans.

Without effective leverage, Blair had to fall back on charm, persuasiveness (to which Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness appeared immune) and to the “few concessions” mentioned at the outset. These concessions were invariably made to Irish nationalism; “goodies” to unionism were few and far between. This one-sidedness inevitably deepened unionist scepticism. It put us in a dilemma. We wanted the agreement to succeed, so outright opposition was not an option. I was compelled to find some other leverage targeted on republicans. This I did by refusing to nominate Sinn Fein -ministers to north/south ministerial meetings and by threatening the suspension of the Assembly, thereby putting Sinn Fein out of office. This did achieve progress, but at a considerable cost to ourselves, for our voters saw our apparent impotence and did not see the admittedly limited progress.

Eventually other sticks appeared, notably the Independent Monitoring Commission with the power to recommend exclusion from office. If this had appeared sooner it would have saved the Assembly and perhaps the centre ground of Northern Ireland politics. The IMC was reinforced by US special envoy Mitchell Reiss, the unsung hero of the process, whose quiet pressure was expressed in conditions attached to US visas and the occasional refusal of a visa. Together they — and the realisation by both Sinn Fein and the DUP that there was nowhere else to go — brought about the restoration of the Assembly after a near five-year hiatus. The mishandling of the process meant that implementation of the agreement, planned to take two years, stretched to nine and is arguably not even certain yet.

Apart from a brief, poorly balanced, chapter on the historical background, this book consists of a detailed account of Powell’s own role in talks between the government and the major parties in Northern Ireland over the past -decade when he became Blair’s point man on the issue, playing a more important role in those matters than successive secretaries of state.

Inevitably it is written from Powell’s own standpoint and leaves out much that the Northern Ireland parties would regard as important. Unfortunately it contains many errors and misinterpretations of our position. I could give scores, but will give a flavour of the problem and a particular one which astonished me.

I appreciate Powell’s reference to the account on my website of the final days of the negotiations, but he could have looked carefully at it. He chides us, and the Irish government, with wasting our time on a “generalised discussion” on the Wednesday evening of the last week. In fact we had sorted out the basic principles for north/south cooperation and developed a sequencing that met the critical needs of both parties. As he mentions, there were subsequent attempts to derail this very creative achievement by elements who wanted a tribal victory rather than an accommodation. But subsequently this issue, so toxic in the past, ran cleanly because in that evening’s discussion we got the architecture right.

Two pages later Powell inserts the then minister of state, Paul Murphy, into the next evening meetings between the UUP and the SDLP. He is right to praise Murphy, but he was not there. If Powell had reflected on my –account he would have realised that our moves in those meetings were inevitable and had been held back for tactical reasons. He describes a Unionist Council meeting in October 2000 as putting Northern -Ireland back in crisis. In fact the meeting he describes took place in September 2002 and lowered the crisis level. The DUP did not win the 2001 Westminster election. We had six seats to their five. Admittedly three of them were at odds with me on policy: but that could be seen as an improvement on the previous situation when a clear majority of the party’s MPs opposed the party’s policy.

More seriously his description of the failed sequence in 2003 ends in a fantasy world. That sequence failed because, despite saying that there would be greater transparency to the decommissioning process, republicans would not let John de Chastelain of the Decommissioning Commission say more, despite considerable efforts by both prime ministers. Over the following days we met with republicans to see if things could be put back on track. -Powell, who joined these efforts, says: “To my surprise, McGuinness indicated that the IRA would agree to saying that a certain percentage [of their weapons] had been decommissioned, but the unionists switched their demand to a timetable for decommissioning . . . Eventually the unionists convinced themselves . . . it was better to fight the election, if we were going to insist on having one, without a deal than with a bad one. Republicans, for whom negotiation was a way of life, thought they were just playing hardball. In the end the republicans offered both a timetable of 2 months for decommissioning and a percentage of arms decommissioned together with an annex listing the types of weapons, an incredibly good deal, but still the unionists turned it down.”

Actually we had for some days being trying to get a fact — any fact — about decommissioning. We would probably have settled for a percentage if a figure had been offered: but no such figure was offered by anyone. As to the timetable and list of weapons, we would have been astonished had we got these. We concluded that, with the election announced the previous week and the campaign already started, we could not spend any more time trying to clean up the mess caused by the failure of republicans to deliver the transparency they promised.

There was one consolation in the election result. As it became clear that the DUP were beating us in seats and votes, Powell phoned up David Campbell (my senior policy adviser), saying “This is terrible, what are we going to do?” The reply came back: “You bloody fool, we told you this was going to happen.” On reflection it is my view that the republicans created that situation because they had decided that they preferred to deal with the DUP than with us. We can only speculate as to their reasons. In Ulster the chief interest in this book has been the revelation of a back channel between these parties in 2004. I would not be surprised if such had existed earlier.

On a personal note it is amusing to see that Powell finds “one of the hardest questions to answer. . . is why [Trimble] was willing to risk everything to secure a lasting agreement.” He does not attempt an answer and, interestingly, never asked me. But if he had I am not sure that we would have communicated perfectly. There are so many examples here of imperfect understanding.

Finally, for those following the debate over Hillary Clinton’s contribution to the process, there is only one reference to her, when Powell accidentally tries to kiss one of her secret service agents under the misapprehension that it was Clinton’s former Ireland adviser, Nancy Soderberg. “I was very lucky not to be shot,” he writes.

Fortunate for him.

(05 April 2008)

Link to the article on the Guardian website.

» Return to Speeches Directory

Published by the Office of The Right Honourable The Lord Trimble, of Lisnagarvey in the County of Antrim.
Tel: 020 7219 3000 | Fax: 020 7219 5979 | Email: [email protected]