An Ulster Betrayal

David Trimble's response to Jonathan Powell in the Prospect June 2008

In his article "What I learned in Belfast" (Prospect, May 2008) Jonathan Powell denies that the government deliberately sacrificed the moderate centre of Northern Ireland politics and also indicates what he thinks are the lessons Northern Ireland (NI) for other trouble spots. I have never said that Tony Blair deliberately sacrificed the centre ground. But the centre did lose out, because of a variety of factors which require more careful and more accurate consideration than Jonathan gives. The same is true of the lessons.

Powell says he and Blair wanted to build from the centre, “but we were stymied by the refusal of the SDLP to move ahead without Sinn Fein. John Hume had sold that pass in the 1980s when he began talks with Gerry Adams.” That is a travesty of the facts. The 1998 Agreement was made by the centre ground – by the SDLP and Ulster Unionists. In the final phase of the talks, Sinn Fein put enormous pressure on the SDLP against making an Agreement with us, which they resisted. On Good Friday Sinn Fein did not vote for the Agreement, it abstained. One of the lessons that Powell should have noted was that republicans moved enormously after the Agreement, because of the firmness of the centre ground and both the British and Irish governments.

Powell is right to say that such a breakthrough “counts for little if the parties do not apply themselves to implementing it.” He should, however, have included the government among those who should implement it. On Good Friday Mr Blair signed a letter to me which concluded, “I confirm that in our view the effect of the decommissioning section of the Agreement … is that the process of decommissioning should start straight away.” The government however made no real effort to implement that section of the Agreement.

In Powell's treatment, the decade after the deal was still a negotiation period, rather than a period for securing implementation of the agreement. For example after noting that continuing paramilitary activity had caused a loss of support among Unionists, he says, “we had to force the issue by driving the ambiguity out of the agreement. Blair made it clear in 2003 that republicans had to give up the dual strategy for good and opt for a purely political strategy. It was high risk and we could have lost them at that point, but ultimately it provided the catalyst for the endgame.”

But there was never any ambiguity in the Agreement. It never envisaged a dual political/paramilitary approach by anyone. It emphasisied that all parties must commit to exclusively peaceful and democratic means, and prescribed 22 May 2000 as the date for the completion of the total disarmament of paramilitary bodies, as noted above the British government considered that the Agreement called for that to begin immediately. So when in October 2002 (not 2003) Blair said that there would be no more inch by inch negotiation and called for the completion of the transition, he was trying to cure the problems caused by the government’s failure to insist on full prompt implementation. Characteristically, Blair and Powell then failed to stick to their own call. Even more time was to elapse from the call for completion in 2002 until it finally happened in 2007 than occured from the original Agreement in 1998 til Blair's call for it to be fully implemented!

In 2004, shortly after he arrived as President Bush’s special representative on Northern Ireland, Mitchell Reiss pulled me aside and asked, “Why is Tony Blair so soft on Gerry Adams?” Powell's article gives the answer. Even after 2002 the British government feared the IRA would return to violence. This appears to be the reason why the government let republicans away with the continued existence and criminality of the IRA. In a recent conversation with me, Powell claimed that this was what they were being told by the intelligence agencies up until 2003. But it was not what I was hearing on the ground. My view, especially after the Omagh bomb in August 1998, was that there was no likelihood of a return to violence by the IRA: furthermore that Adams and McGuinness were firmly in control and, while there were management problems, they had the authority to deal with the weapons and end paramilitarism. Indeed when we forced the beginning of decommissioning in 2001, republicans talked about the process as being driven by leadership.

The DUP failed to defeat us in the 2001 elections but we were losing support nonetheless. Elements in the Irish government, who had long been over solicitous of Sinn Fein, along with parts of the Northern Ireland Office (NIO),who for reasons best known to themselves had a similar concern for the"pragmatic wing" of the DUP, began to emphasise the need to bring in the extremes. That seemed to me like using the consequences of their mishandling of the process as justification for handling it even worse. Blair resisted this pressure, but because he failed to get republicans to move in response to his 2002 speech he, and the situation, drifted to the point where those who did want to sacrifice the middle ground got their way.

Powell lays much emphasis on process and the need to have channels open with our enemies. In particular he refers approvingly to a channel that was opened with the IRA in 1974. He concedes that it was not used seriously from then until 1993. But he does not ask why. For his answer he should look to the effectiveness of the security forces during that time, rather than any Damascene conversion among republicans. Likewise when republicans finally moved to complete decommissioning, end paramilitary activity and support the police, their actions were driven by external pressures, three in particular. Continuing criminality threatened the electoral progress they hoped to make, especially in the Republic of Ireland. The Independent Monitoring Commission, which the Northern Ireland Office fought tooth and nail when we proposed it early in 2002, added to that pressure as well as creating their own as did the emphasis that the US administration placed on Sinn Fein supporting policing. Emphasis demonstrated by the McCartney sisters being invited to the White House, and the restrictions on, and occasional refusals of, Sinn Fein visas by Reiss. Even though Adams got Downing Street to complain the White House about the latter!

Any consideration of global lessons has to begin with a clear understanding of what happened, which does not come over from Jonathan’s accounts of events in NI.

Prospect June 2008

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