From the Archives November 28th, 1995

Anglo-Irish negotiations on the Northern peace process were mired in mutual recriminations less than three days before President Bill Clinton’s historic visit to Belfast 20 years ago, as Deaglán de Bréadún reported


The on-again, off-again Anglo-Irish affair known as the peace process was going through one of its more tempestuous phases yesterday.

The weekend rendezvous of the mandarins in London was not a success and there were recriminations on both sides. London was apparently telling anyone who would listen that it had a deal sewn up with the nice people from the Department of the Taoiseach, but then some republican bootboys from Foreign Affairs muscled in and tore the whole thing apart. This type of briefing to the media led to deep anger in Dublin. “Completely untrue and without substance,” said a Government spokesman.

The officials who took part in the London talks came into Government Buildings on Sunday to assist the Taoiseach [John Bruton] in preparing another missive to Mr [John] Major [the British prime minister].

Five hours of preparatory work went into this document, which was sent off to Downing Street at 3.30 p.m. on Sunday. It sought to resolve the impasse on paramilitary arms, reiterated that there was a clear distinction between weapons of the security forces and those illegally held by paramilitaries, and once again stressed the necessity to bring about all-party talks.

Dublin sources claim the British government is trying to sow division in the ranks of the Coalition, particularly between Mr Bruton and Mr [Dick] Spring [tánaiste, foreign minister and Labour Party leader], and their respective Departments.

The Irish side says it is used to hard bargaining and tough talking from the British but that this was the first time “disinformation” (a polite terms for lies) had been employed. Dublin sources firmly insist there was no difference of emphasis or any other kind among the members of the Irish delegation at the weekend. There are suspicions on the Irish side that Downing Street is trying to isolate Mr Spring and his Department politically, leaving them to take the blame for lack of progress. The Tánaiste’s prestige in US government circles and his excellent relationship with President Clinton are seen as a threat by Downing Street, the Dublin sources continued.

Aficionados of the peace process know that today’s débacle can be tomorrow’s dream scenario, but the poor state of Anglo-Irish relations yesterday could be gauged from the fact that phrases like “divide and rule”, last seen in school history books, were being fairly freely employed.

The key problem, as outlined by Dublin sources, is the lack of openness on the British side to creative compromise on the decommissioning issue. In the terms of reference for the international decommissioning agency, the Irish side wants a form of words which would allow both Sinn Féin and Britain to co-operate with it.

A fudge, you might say, but it seems Downing Street has no appetite for fudge at the moment. Some Dublin sources allege this is Perfidious Albion behaving in its usual Machiavellian manner. Other sources claim it is British ineptitude and a basic failure to understand what the peace process is all about.

The Government also feels peeved at what it sees as Sinn Féin’s doomsaying over the peace process. This annoyance was reflected in a statement on Sunday issued in the name of Mr Phil Hogan, chairman of the Fine Gael parliamentary party, and also in the RTÉ television interview given by Mr [Proinsias] de Rossa [minister for social welfare and leader of Democratic Left] last night. Republican sources appear to be genuinely depressed over the lack of progress since the [IRA]ceasefire was called [in September 1994].

Only one of those sudden mercurial shifts that sometimes take place in the peace process can allow for a summit in advance of President Clinton’s visit. Instead, the focus of attention will switch to what the President might say when he gets here. The language in his speeches will be parsed and analysed for any hint of a rebuke to Britain, since Dublin sources claim that it is now clear to Washington who the real footdraggers are. The bright hopes of August-September 1994 have given way to anxiety and, in republican circles, near-despair.

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Selected by Joe Joyce; email