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How the Northern peace deal could have been the Barbados Agreement: State papers reveal last-ditch talks

Insightful and nuanced reporting typified the approach of successive Irish civil servants – the best-informed participants in the negotiations

In what is arguably the most comprehensive treaty in British-Irish relations since 1921, there remains indecision on what it should be called. Should it be named after its location or its date? Is it to be the Belfast Agreement or the Good Friday Agreement?

From the latest release of State papers, it transpires that it might have become the Barbados Agreement – had a proposal to switch the negotiations out of Belfast won any traction.

Then Northern Ireland secretary Mo Mowlam proposed Barbados as a venue more suited to the imminent multi-party talks. She was speaking with Bertie Ahern and his negotiators in the taoiseach’s office in Dublin.

Her Barbados kite won no support; but Bertie Ahern, along with key members of his team, Walter Kirwan and Martin Mansergh, were all agreed that in the imminent multi-party negotiations, secrecy was paramount.


As the elements of any draft text were agreed, it was proposed that circulation should be restricted, extraneous copies shredded and the text itself only retained in segments.

Kirwan’s note began with a typo; that the opening tete-a-tete between Ahern and Mowlam had lasted “8 months”; he then recorded that his note was “not verbatim and not exhaustive”.

But it did show Kirwan’s usual attention to detail; he recorded Mowlam’s information that, at a recent meeting the Ulster Unionist, Reg Empey had “eyeballed Sinn Féin and felt he was winning. You could see him visibly growing in confidence”.

Mansergh reminded the meeting of Sinn Féin’s reluctance to concede the principle of consent to a Northern Ireland majority until the end. Mowlam responded: “Or they [do] not even agree even then, just acquiesce. If they go no further than the latter, so what?”

Philip McDonagh reported that behind a ‘friendly and bantering manner’, he found her ‘very much on top of the issues’

Some few weeks later, further insight into Mowlam’s approach to the negotiations is contained in the Department of Foreign Affairs files.

Philip McDonagh of the Irish embassy in London reported to Dublin on a wide-ranging conversation he had had with Mowlam, following a peace process event in Warrington to pay respects to two local schoolboys who had been killed in an IRA bomb attack.

McDonagh had accepted an invitation to fly back to London in Mowlam’s private jet – on hire from Chris de Burgh – informing Dublin that she had clearly invited him in order to exchange intelligence on the peace process.

He reported that behind a “friendly and bantering manner”, he found her “very much on top of the issues”. She was “committed” to achieving the Easter deadline and he reported her “willingness to take political risks”.

He also recorded an impression that her private references to Blair “suggested an open and friendly relationship” in which she was “confident of her own influence”.

But he added that references to her own civil servants, “while correct, had little warmth”. McDonagh read this as indirect confirmation that such officials working on the talks had “not quite caught up” with Mowlam’s own “drive and openness of vision”.

Such insightful and nuanced reporting typified the approach of successive Irish civil servants since they had begun their chronicling of the Northern Troubles in 1968.

The Irish disadvantage

For some years there have been complaints that these highly important Irish papers have remained closed under the traditional 30 year rule, while the British have been incrementally moving to a policy of a 20 year delay, before their secret files can be viewed.

As the Irish procrastinated, the British incrementally added to their releases and an ever-widening gap opened up between the records of the two administrations. Moreover this Irish disadvantage was exacerbated by the reality that the Belfast Agreement was still unfinished business.

To correct this anomaly, it proved necessary that many years of Irish diplomatic papers should be released very quickly. This has since happened and on such a scale that the Irish and British accounts of the same political developments can now be evaluated on a level playing pitch.

Holmes informed Blair that Mowlam was being given ‘a very unpleasant time’ by the UUP over her handling of the IRA decommissioning controversy

An interesting example is provided by the Mowlam case. While McDonagh’s account must have helped fine-tune Dublin’s strategy in the imminent talks, it would appear that she did not convey to him any inkling of her then difficulties with the Trimble Unionists. These have recently been revealed in the British files covering Blair’s prime ministership.

The detail of these difficulties was brought to Blair’s attention by his private secretary, John Holmes, a key player in the peace process. Within days of Mowlam’s confidential talks with McDonagh, Holmes informed Blair that Mowlam was being given “a very unpleasant time” by the UUP over her handling of the IRA decommissioning controversy.

Indeed, she was “being constantly called a liar”. And her upset was not alleviated when, as Holmes told Blair, she had learned of “our own friendly chats with Trimble”.

Of course it remains true that such rich seams of gossip would not all come as a surprise to the very well-informed team who were preparing the Irish government’s strategy. But the feeding in of so much high quality “intelligence” must surely have made them the best-informed participants in the talks.

Blair and Ahern’s relationship

Ahern certainly appreciated the quicksands involved as he prepared for nothing less than a realignment of the template in British-Irish relations. And the Irish files show that he was not slow to remind other players of the considerable risks they were expecting him to undertake.

As the Irish papers now reveal – and Seamus Mallon explicitly advised the taoiseach’s department that this would prove true – Ahern had the advantage that, for his government, the Northern Ireland challenge was central, whereas Blair had multiple policy crises competing for his attention.

Mallon predicted that Blair would tend to depend on Ahern. And there is nothing in Blair’s autobiography to contradict this. Indeed from their very first meeting, Blair writes that the two government leaders “got on like the proverbial house on fire”.

Orla O’Hanrahan noted that it was Prince Andrew who had initiated their conversation, suggesting that the Republic might soon rejoin the Commonwealth, ‘an idea which he thought had merit’

Blair would have been well aware of the expertise of the Irish officials. Veterans in the field of Anglo-Irish relations, they were widely respected. Even Sinn Féin delegates knew how formidable and relentless Iveagh House had been in their opposition to the IRA’s bombing campaign over many years.

And as has been said before these Irish diplomats had dined for Ireland. Most had spent a sojourn in the London embassy. They had specialised – since Garret FitzGerald’s era – in talking not just to Dublin’s friends at Westminster, Whitehall and Fleet Street but also with those who were antipathetic to the Irish analysis but who, it was hoped, might benefit from a second perspective.

Of evident help to the Irish front-line team at the negotiation of the Belfast Agreement, these mandarins remained diligent workers in the ever more arduous challenges which were encountered in implementing the Agreement.

No detail was too small not to be chronicled for Iveagh House’s attention and distilled there for further consideration. When Prince Andrew was on an official visit to Boston on board his old warship HMS Montrose – on which he had served during the Falklands war – Orla O’Hanrahan of the Irish Consulate in Boston reported a 20-minute conversation with the prince.

She noted that it was he who had initiated their conversation, suggesting that the Republic might soon rejoin the Commonwealth, “an idea which he thought had merit”.

She also had quoted him as saying that “the Irish would be laughing on the other side of their faces”, were there to be an increase in support for Sinn Féin in the Republic, “a prospect he thought likely”. She “endeavoured mildly to offer our viewpoint on the issue”, but then opted to change the subject – to golf.

Dr John Bowman is a broadcaster and historian. He has presented current affairs and historical programmes on RTÉ radio and television since the 1960s. His De Valera and the Ulster Question: 1917–1973, won the Ewart-Biggs Prize for its contribution to North-South understanding. He has written each year for the past 40 years on the release of State papers for the Irish Times.