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Untold histories of peace negotiations in the North

New books include in-depth interviews with protagonists in 1998

Former British prime minister Tony Blair, former US Senator George Mitchell and former taoiseach Bertie Ahern. Photograph: Dan Chung/AFP/Getty

Inside Accounts: Vols. 1 & 2: The Irish Government and Peace in Northern Ireland, from Sunningdale to the Good Friday Agreement. Interviews by Graham Spencer.

Brokering the Good Friday Agreement: The Untold Story. Edited by Mary E Daly

On April 10th, 1998, Larry Butlin, a White House aide, was asked why he and his colleagues were intently watching CNN. He responded: “Hell just froze over. There’s going to be peace in Ireland.” Freezing that hell took decades and, based on what is on offer in these three books, historians now have no shortage of first-hand, personal testimony to assist them in their analysis of the process that generated both domestic and international acclaim for the Belfast Agreement in 1998.

Three inter-linked narratives dominate these books: the experiences of the diplomats and civil servants involved in dialogue and negotiating, their perceptions of those they spoke to and the ongoing relevance of what was achieved by 1998. Inside Accounts consists of two volumes containing 17 in-depth interviews with many of the key players conducted by Graham Spencer, an academic specialising in political violence and conflict resolution. Brokering the Good Friday Agreement: the Untold Story, edited by historian Mary Daly, contains the proceedings of a conference held in the Royal Irish Academy in March 2018 during which the architects of the agreement offered reflections and personal experiences.


There is inevitably much crossover and repetition across the three books, but that does not detract from the significance of what they collectively represent: a remarkably intimate record of a high stakes project to end the violence that had plagued this island for 30 years. That eventually prompted intense private dialogue, instead of what John Peck, British Ambassador to Ireland in the early 1970s, called “brawling in public”. The accounts are often riveting and there is a welcome frankness from retired civil servants and diplomats now free to roam widely in their assessments.

The books are dripping with masculinity, which is hardly surprising as the peace process has been very much a male world, cultivated during an era when hostility to the advancement of women in politics, diplomacy and public service was palpable. Ted Smyth, who served on the secretariat of the New Ireland Forum from 1983-4 remembers Charles Haughey asking “who invited these harridans?” when the Women’s Law and Research Group attended the Forum. There was also the belief that the work being engaged in was “dangerous” and therefore unsuitable for women.

It was undoubtedly dangerous for some; it was also a secretive, hermetic and tense world, though occasional humorous asides provide relief. Tim Dalton, former secretary general of the Department of Justice, remembers that not only did he find himself “trying to draft IRA statements on a Sunday night” after watching RTÉ’s Sunday Game, but also spent so much time in Clonard Monastery for secret negotiations and exploratory chats that he concluded he “must by now have qualified for Holy Orders”. Such human colour is welcome given the relentless gravity of what was going on.

These books are very much about the Irish perspective on the peace process; any overall assessment would need the British one also. I suspect, however, that British civil servants might be more reticent, for reasons that become apparent the more you read here of the differences between the British and Irish traditions of governance and diplomacy.


The Irish, in the words of Eamonn McKee, who worked in the Anglo-Irish section of the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), operated in a much smaller system where “you have to live more on your wits” but also develop more empathy: “there is always a sense that the British don’t quite get what it is they did”, he notes.

There is a mistaken assumption that the coloniser is the great strategic thinker, McKee elaborates; in truth, they have power rather than strategy but the mistaken belief gives strength to the colonised “because they start strategising and thinking very long term”. On the British side, noted historian Margaret O’Callaghan at the RIA event, “there is far less continuity in perception, construction and understanding … each initiative seems for British politicians and officials a new beginning”, a troubling manifestation of the consequences of the instinct to ignore Ireland.

The British government of Harold Wilson receives harsh criticism for not resisting the Loyalist backlash to the failed Sunningdale power sharing arrangement

What mattered ultimately was what Liz O’Donnell, formerly a junior minister at the DFA and the only female interviewee, identifies: a “consistent intellectual investment” by civil servants.

What also needs to be appreciated, notes Graham Spencer, is “the creativity, imagination, application needed to end conflict that hinges on the unexpected, the spontaneous, the peripheral and the psychological”. These aspects are well covered here, but the “truth” in the interviews is not, as Spencer attests “the truth of documentation” (indeed, it could be argued that the “truth” of documentation is also problematic), but the “fluid interplay of experience and memory”.

It is an important caveat; the interviews were conducted between 2014 and 2017 and reflections on the Belfast Agreement at the RIA conference came 20 years after the agreement; they are inevitably coloured by the present and a degree of shape shifting. That is not a criticism; such is the nature of oral history, and there is also an abundance of intelligence, modesty and decency on display here; most saw themselves primarily as public servants with a patriotic duty to try and end violence. Fulfilling that duty involved listening closely to many people.

I could start at the beginning, but there is no agreed beginning; the term “peace process” does not fit a fixed timeframe; the books cover the period from the outbreak of the Troubles to the collapse of NI power sharing in 2017. While there are obvious and agreed stage posts – the Sunningdale Agreement in 1973, the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, the Brooke-Mayhew talks of the early 1990s (which “have receded from popular memory” notes Mary Daly) the Downing Street Declaration of 1993 and the Belfast Agreement of 1998 – whether or not these represent a seamless robe is open to debate.

Multi-party talks

Wally Kirwan, a senior member of the Irish delegation during the multi-party talks from 1996, suggests from Sunningdale on there was “a constant set of threads” that led to the Hume/Adams dialogue in 1988; there were markers and structures that would inform later attempts at a settlement.

What the earlier agreements lacked was the involvement of the protagonists of the conflict. That there was no chance of peace until they were included is now widely accepted, underlining one of the most controversial themes in modern Irish and Anglo-Irish history: the appropriateness of talking to those deemed by the political establishment to be terrorists and regarded by their supporters as freedom fighters.

Establishing contacts with the SDLP was a priority in the early 1970s for a Dublin government that at the outbreak of the Troubles, in the words of Seán Donlon, former ambassador to Washington and secretary general of the DFA, was “not administratively structured in any way to deal with the situation”. In 1970, Eamonn Gallagher, a mid-level counsellor, became the first official in the DFA to be given an assignment relating to NI, travelling up regularly in a battered left-hand drive Renault 4. Donlon was also speaking to Ian Paisley surreptitiously in the mid 1970s on flights from Aldergrove to Heathrow, Paisley telling him beforehand “I will be in seat 1A…if you get Seat 1B we could have a chat”, while in relation to the IRA, “there was never a period when the British did not have a channel of communication”.

The British government of Harold Wilson receives harsh criticism for not resisting the Loyalist backlash to the failed Sunningdale power sharing arrangement. The broken pieces were eventually picked up. What happened from 1982 to 1985 was vital, culminating in the Anglo-Irish Agreement (AIA), which was built on what Noel Dorr, then Irish ambassador in London, terms “successive approximations”. Michael Lillis, one of the negotiators of the AIA, walked alongside the Grand Canal with David Goodall, deputy-secretary at the British cabinet office in 1983. They spoke of possible changes to Articles 2&3 of the Irish constitution, a say for the Republic in the affairs of NI and the involvement of both Irish and NI judges in terrorist trials; these seemed “astonishingly far-fetched ideas” but “Thatcher didn’t instruct us to stop talking.”

Lillis told Goodall Britain had to lose its colonial mindset about Ireland, but it was also about overcoming an Irish governmental system that was partitionist; not wanting the Troubles to be “dragged into our territory”. Goodall was crucial, as was Robert Armstrong, British cabinet secretary, and there is repeated praise for them. Another initiative was the promotion of non-political contacts; Noel Dorr underlines the importance of hosting British journalists and taking them on Irish tours.

As negotiators, Sinn Féin were 'diligent, shrewd and wary … always looking for potential traps'

Dorr’s colleague in the Irish embassy, Richard Ryan, cultivated Tory backbenchers. The extent of these contacts was significant; Ryan found himself at a drinks party in the Imperial Hotel in London hosted by Alistair McAlpine, the party treasurer; “an Irish diplomat in this Tory inner sanctum”. Some who were racist and obnoxious towards the Irish gradually tamed their ignorance; there were also four-hour lunches with Ian Gow, parliamentary private secretary to Thatcher, and secret meetings in secluded country houses between 1983 and 1985. Others had to endure less salubrious conditions in the “Bunker” at Maryfield in Belfast where the Anglo-Irish Secretariat was based after the AIA: Daithí Ó Ceallaigh remembers: “we were obliged to make our wills”; he and Lillis were the only civil servants inside when the bunker was attacked during a protest by 18,000 loyalists in January 1986.

Cactus and caucus

In the early 1990s on a beach in France with Donlon, John Hume talked of the difference between a cactus and a caucus; on a cactus all the pricks are on the outside; what was needed was a caucus structure, which “was not going to wash with Dublin and London at that stage.” But there were many tensions too when the Irish felt deceived that the British had, unbeknownst to them, been talking to the IRA. As Seán O hUiginn, head of the Anglo-Irish division in DFA from 1992, bitingly comments: “In spite of John Major’s famous declaration that contact with paramilitaries would turn his stomach, he had sustained, without any sign of gastric distress, protracted contacts with the republicans, all carefully concealed from the Irish government”. O hUiginn, as a talented wordsmith, played to his strengths during this period: “all of the texts I can recall went through a painstaking process of refinement”. Overall, the peace process involved what he terms “a floating drafting process.”

As negotiators, Sinn Féin were “diligent, shrewd and wary … always looking for potential traps” and in Tim Dalton’s words, would hand back a draft “covered in blue biro marks signalling failure on our part but with little in the way of explanation from the Examiner as to why we had failed another exam”. Lillis was later to meet Gerry Adams in the house of journalist Mary Holland: Adams assumed Lillis had pro-British sentiment but Lillis notes wryly: “I had very good fluency in the Irish language, a lot better than he did”.

What mattered was that the Shinners had something in the shed that the Brits wanted. The Shinners knew what they had and they were able to use it

What emerges from multiple interviewees was that unionists were exceptionally poor negotiators; not only because of their innate pessimism (“every concession seems a loss that can never be retrieved”) but because of their own divisions and lack of preparation or strategy (“as many voices as people”). As Rory Montgomery, part of the team that negotiated the Belfast Agreement sees it, they “never really had the debate internally about exactly what terms they could accommodate”.

When problems arose, one of the key differences between the British and Irish systems mattered greatly: access to senior politicians. You could meet face to face and do business more quickly in the Irish system and Albert Reynolds is praised for his impatience with process and his gritty urgency. The British system is more hierarchical and closed but Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair managed to break through it.

Eamonn McKee sees policing as “the great success of the peace process” and the SDLP deserve most of the credit for that, particularly because of the “tremendous tenacity” of that party’s Alex Atwood. More broadly, that also underlines the unfairness the SDLP ultimately had to endure. They had, notes McKee, “the right arguments and the right approach and hadn’t killed anybody, but that didn’t matter in negotiations. What mattered was that the Shinners had something in the shed that the Brits wanted. The Shinners knew what they had and they were able to use it”.

What of the future? A possible long-term scenario, according to Lillis, is political security for unionists through a UK government role in NI within a sovereign all-Ireland structure. O hUiginn suggests dangers lurking ahead include a unionist realisation that “just as Irish unity could come about only by those who favoured it persuading those who do not, the maintenance of the union will increasingly depend on the same principle”. Nor should it be forgotten that the Belfast Agreement’s measures to respect the divided allegiances of NI are “already pledged to continue with reverse polarity” in the event of unity.

Based on the evidence in these books, any agreement on the future political shape of this island can only be achieved through many years of painstaking discussion.

Diarmaid Ferriter is Professor of Modern Irish History at UCD and an Irish Times columnist. His book, The Border: The Legacy of a Century of Anglo-Irish Politics, was published last year by Profile Books