Three days before Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern were able to broker the Belfast Agreement, civil servants were concerned that a deal might prove a “bridge too far”.
Northern Ireland Office files show that in the months running up to the conclusion of the multiparty talks at Stormont there had been considerable contingency planning about where a revived Assembly should be accommodated, how many departments a new executive should have, which electoral system should be used to return MLAs and how the civil service and UK ministers should handle a referendum campaign.
However on April 7th, 1998, civil servant David Crabbe sent a memo to the head of the Northern Ireland civil service John Semple entitled “Grim Outlook (Bridges Too Far?)”. Crabbe reported that “things have taken a serious turn for the worse with regards to the political process”.
He said the Ulster Unionists had rejected a synthesis paper put forward by talks chairman George Mitchell, and “whilst not talking in terms of a ‘walk out’, they have signalled that ‘radical changes’ are required”. The memo continues “to top all of this, the Alliance Party have responded equally vehemently to the document. They believe they could not sell it to their constituency!”
On the mood among nationalists, the memo surmises “all this of course suits the SDLP and Sinn Féin particularly well. It deflects away from their protestations. We are probably likely to see SDLP/Sinn Féin push on regardless for non-institutional issues (eg policing, criminal justice etc..) arguing that such issues should not await the resolution of institutional issues.”
Ulster Unionist unhappiness with Mitchell’s synthesis paper – which they regarded as creating too many North-South bodies with too much power – was no secret at the time of the talks. The UUP deputy leader John Taylor told the press he would not touch the proposals with a “40-foot barge pole”.
In his memoir Making Peace former US senator Mitchell, wrote that the controversial “strand 2″ section laying out the vision for cross-Border bodies was not in fact his work, but had been authored by the British and Irish governments. Mitchell revealed that Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern had insisted the section be included unchanged, without any indication that it was their text not that of the talks chairman. Mitchell wrote that when he read the document he knew instantly that “Trimble would never, could never, accept this”.
After the crisis erupted Blair and Ahern flew into Stormont to take personal charge of the negotiations, including the recalibration of their own controversial North-South proposals which had nearly caused the Belfast Agreement talks to break down.
Other documents show that a month before the Belfast Agreement concluded a contingency plan had identified Castle Buildings as “the least costly solution” for accommodating the new Northern Ireland Assembly.
Documents also deal with issues like the number of departments the new Stormont executive should have and the precise electoral system which should be used to return the new MLAs.
Charts set out different departmental plans, from the six being used under direct rule to eight, nine or 12 – in the end the negotiators settled on 10. A senior official in the finance department warned in a memo against including a devolved “Department of Social Security and Child Support” in the plan.
“Creating a Social Security portfolio, never mind a department, creates major risks for NI. At present NI spends c. £3bn pa on Social Security Benefits and ‘we get what we need’ from the Treasury on the basis that the policy is strict parity and the expenditure is demand led. Any departure from strict parity… would carry an immediate risk that Treasury would seize the opportunity to remove or modify the Social Security resources guarantee. It is difficult to imagine any development which would have so much potential to destabilise the NI Block,” the memo read.
ln the event social security was theoretically devolved to Northern Ireland via the Department for Social Development, but successive ministers have generally stuck to the strict parity rule under which they mirror welfare benefits elsewhere in the UK.
The contingency planning exercise also considered which electoral system should be used to return new MLAs. One document, dated April 3rd, 1998, reported that the DUP favoured a “curious Alternative member system” under which 50 MLAs would be returned from constituencies and 46 from a regional top-up list which would exclude parties getting less than 4-5 per cent of the vote.
An official notes that this system “would enable the party to maximise Rev Paisley’s personal vote. It would probably also ensure the loyalists failed to gain seats from either the regional list or from constituency seats, as well as excluding the other small parties”.
Other files show the Northern Ireland secretary Mo Mowlam had asked the Irish American millionaire Bill Flynn to provide “advice, backup and even finance” to the two small loyalist parties and the SDLP in the run up to the referendum on the outcome of the Belfast Agreement talks.
Mowlam met Flynn and Tom Moran for a brief meeting in January 1998 before heading off to another negotiating session. Flynn, who had helped to broker a visa for Gerry Adams to travel to the United States in 1994, was full of praise for Mowlam “for her high risk strategy in visiting the loyalist prisoners in the Maze”.
The Northern Ireland secretary wasted no time in seeking the support of Flynn and Moran. She explained that “the PUP [Progressive Unionists] and UDP [Ulster Democrats], and to a certain extent, the SDLP, needed advice, backup and even finance in the period leading up to the referendum on the talks outcome. Sinn Féin appeared to have all of these.”
Moran responded that “the loyalists, and in particular David Ervine, had made a tremendous impression on the American community generally and were assured of a great reception whenever they came to the United States... He and Bill Flynn both thought that something could be done to assist… and undertook to reflect on it.”