Ten Years On
The Irish Times 01 April 2008
I have on other occasions paid tribute to all those who played a part in producing agreement ten years ago. I still am proud of what we did then and have warm feelings for those who made it possible, despite the vicissitudes of the years in between. But I would, on this occasion like to take the agreement as read and focus on some of the difficulties that followed, what some of the lessons might be and on the future.
George Mitchell presciently said that while getting the Agreement was difficult, implementing it would be even more difficult. On the surface our big problem in implementing the Agreement was within the party and with unionist public opinion generally, but the real underlying problem was republicanism.
It was often said that the public was ahead of the politicians. But this was not the case. Getting the Agreement was driven by political leadership, from the governments and the parties that negotiated it. It came as a surprise to the public, many of whom, not unreasonably in the light of three decades of political failure, took the view that it would not work. This scepticism was reinforced by the deep revulsion created at the beginning of the referendum campaign in May 1998 by the temporary release of a number of terrorists, including some notorious killers to be ostentatiously paraded before adoring audiences at republican and loyalist rallies.
With vigorous campaigning we managed to turn the situation round and produce a narrow unionist majority for the Agreement, reflected by the 30 unionists elected to the Assembly on a pro-agreement ticket as against 28 anti-agreement members.
Opinion polls show by the autumn protestant opinion had flipped from its previous 55/45 positive position to being 55/45 against. I think the shift was because people felt let down by Blair. His letter to me on the afternoon of the agreement said that decommissioning should start in June, but the government did nothing to bring it about. His referendum pledges said that prisoners would not be released unless violence was given up for good, but when republicans were guilty of acts of violence including murder later in the year, Secretary of State Mowlem dismissed it as “internal housekeeping” – an implied licence to kill.
Blair could have borne down on both issues by making prisoner release conditional. This was open to him. Linkage with decommissioning could be implied from the common two year period for implementation, and everything in the agreement was conditioned on exclusively peaceful means. Without this leverage, Blair had to fall back on his charm and persuasiveness, something to which Adams and McGuinness appeared immune, and the subsequent flow of “goodies” to republicanism deepened unionist scepticism. I was compelled to find another stick in the form of putting Sinn Fein out of office by threatening the suspension of the Assembly. This did achieve progress, but at a considerable cost to ourselves.
Eventually other sticks appeared notably the Independent Monitoring Commission, which if it had appeared sooner would have saved the Assembly and perhaps the centre ground of Northern Ireland politics. The IMC was reinforced by 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, common both to 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 caused by republican failure to honour its pledges and government weakness.
I am often asked for my views on the lessons to be drawn from the making of the Belfast Agreement and its implementation. The questioner usually appears to view the Agreement as a success to be emulated. But was it a success? I am of the view that the “troubles” could have been avoided in the first place. But if one takes as given the mistakes and malign conjunctions that created the troubles in the first place and regards only post 1969 events, I have to observe that there could have been a political settlement a generation ago. I refer not to the deeply flawed Sunningdale agreement, but to the inter-party talks of 1975.
Those talks resulted in an agreement between the all unionist parties and the SDLP. Unfortunately a few days later Dr. Paisley, apparently faced by a split in his church, resiled from that agreement, most other unionists reverted to safety first mode, and only a handful of unionists (including myself) remained in support. In the years of stalemate that followed many of those who had exhibited caution or opposition expressed to me their regret at that lost opportunity.
The next serious inter-party talks were in 1992. They could have reached agreement but did not because of the caution displayed at leadership level across all the participants. In those talks we could see clearly the interplay between pragmatic and intransigent wings of the DUP and that was a significant factor in the willingness of the UUP to go it alone in 1997.
In considering possible lessons it is essential to recognise that our process operated within a distinct context, scarcely repeated elsewhere. Furthermore, it reached a largely successful conclusion because it established a structure and framework for negotiation and certain rules of engagement, some of which originated in the 1992 talks. In addition the outcome was heavily conditioned, partly by the generally, though in a few case grudgingly, accepted principle of consent, but also by a series of intergovernmental understandings culminating in the Heads of Agreement paper of January 1998, which was virtually a summary of what was achieved three months later.
Last year Peter Hain, with an eye trained on the Middle East, gave his view of the lessons seeing the key dynamic in the search for peace as a bi-lateral process between the terrorists and the government. He argued that “pre-conditions can strangle the process at birth”. Instead, it is hard not to avoid the conclusion that they were the only basis on which the process could have successfully proceeded. It is possible that Hain failed to appreciate the true nature of the Northern Ireland process because the basic principles were established by John Major, and by Hain’s excessive attention to the issue of decommissioning.
The basic building blocks of ending of violence and establishing a commitment to exclusively peaceful and democratic means were contained in the Downing Street Declaration of 1993 and decommissioning and the “Mitchell principles” were deployed as means of implementing those basic principles and building confidence. True, there was also flexibility about the secondary, essentially tactical measures. But as one government gave way to another, there were times it looked as if the Blair government had lost sight of the basics and assumed that flexibility was the key principle. The more the governments were flexible over frameworks and pre-conditions, however, the more difficulties they faced. Some flexibility is desirable, but there have to be clear principles and boundaries; a failure to recognise this runs the risk of learning the wrong lessons from our experience.
Last year commenting in Parliament on the DUP/Sinn Fein deal, I said,
“It looks as though it will finally implement the Belfast agreement. That is a good thing; I welcome that … . [W]e now have the prospect of the institutions that were created so many years ago and have gone through such vicissitudes settling down and bedding in. That is a good thing and those who have done it deserve to be congratulated on having done so.” (Lords Hansard, 27 March 2007)
I added, “I rather suspect that, after the initial shock, people will find that they can work together, and indeed will probably do so better than they currently expect.” I was however surprised at the emergence of the “chuckle brothers”. But now that the “chuckle” phase ends, it is likely to be replaced by the good working relationship I originally expected.
Nonetheless, the DUP have problems. They have largely lost the Free Presbyterian church members who were their electoral machine, and the strength of Jim Allister’s rejectionist movement has taken the DUP leadership by surprise. The failure by Paisley, during last year’s election, to state clearly what he was going to do, in a remarkable repeat of Brian Faulkner’s 1973 tactics, has done considerable damage. Hence the vigorous back peddling on the devolution of policing and justice which was clearly part of the deal. This has produced a contradiction. Last year Paisley proclaimed that republican support for policing meant that the IRA had gone out of existence. Of course, if the DUP truly believed that there was support for policing, then devolution would be the natural consequence. But now the DUP demand that the “army council” disband. This undercuts their main achievement post St Andrews. The demand incidentally is ridiculous. How can it be proved that a secret body has irrevocably ceased to exist?
It would be better to simply say that while the verbal support for policing and the republican presence on policing bodies is very welcome, the words need to be matched by deeds, and that republican assistance in resolving the Quinn and McCartney murder cases would do more to create the necessary public confidence than anything else imaginable.
Beyond this issue they are further challenges. Some relate to the reform of public services, on which the progress so far has been miniscule. Others relate to the legacies of the troubles such as victims, interface areas and community relations generally. The new dispensation gives an opportunity to tackle these, and the chance of creating a society where all sections of the community feel really comfortable is perhaps the most tremendous and exciting consequence of the agreement. But it can only be done with an administration that unequivocally welcomes the Agreement and the institutions that Agreement created. Whether Sinn Fein and the DUP can turn themselves into parties that can do this, or whether their administration is just another stage in the transition, remain to be seen.
(01 April 2008)
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