Twists and turns of vexed Belfast Agreement Talks revealed
Sleight-of-hand actions of governments were deployed to obviate intractable problems
Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimble and Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams pass within touching distance of each other outside Castle Buildings, Stormont during a break in the negotiations before the signing of the Belfast Agreement on April 10th, 1998. File photograph: PA
How rarely we get a chance to “feel the hand of history upon our shoulder” in the life of a country.
In a confidential memo authored by John Holmes, principal private secretary to former British prime minister Tony Blair during the making of the 1998 Belfast Agreement, we can now uniquely sit on his window ledge and share a truly history-making moment – a moment which has delivered over 20 years of peace in Northern Ireland.
Holmes, blessed with good shorthand, in a secret 19-pages-long document – the contents of which I am putting in the public domain for the first time – captures the extraordinary twists and turns of the vexed Belfast Agreement Talks successfully negotiated between April 7th and 10th, 1998.
The making of that Agreement, against all the odds, brought to a close 30 years of violence in Northern Ireland at the hands of the IRA and loyalist organisations, responsible for the loss of over 3,500 lives.
We see in this remarkable account of the making of the Agreement the of necessity sleight-of-hand actions of governments being deployed to obviate intractable problems: the terms “fudge”, “concocting a letter” and talk of the principle of “mutually assured destruction” confirmed as such mechanisms deployed by both the British and Irish governments in these intricate negotiations to reach an ultimate agreement.
John Holmes literally sat at Tony Blair’s knee from the moment he arrived at Hillsborough Castle on April 7th until that moment at 5.30pm on April 10th, 1998, when the US chairman of the talks, Senator George Mitchell, said: “I am pleased to announce that the two governments and the political parties in Northern Ireland have reached agreement.”
Holmes reveals to readers of this document “the supply of meeting records dried up on April 9, victim of a combination of exhaustion and the speed at which events were moving”.
Northern Ireland settlement: Final negotiations
Holmes penned his record of the events of those fateful days of history-making on April 13th, feeling he was the best placed person in any of the three governments, the British, Irish or American, or in any of the political parties, to know what exchanges took place across the board.
Despite the upbeat note struck by Mr Blair on Tuesday, April 7th, when he touched down at Hillsborough Castle with those immortal words “a day like today is not a day for sound bites, we can leave those at home, but I feel the hand of history upon our shoulder with respect to this, I really do” – many of us considered those words would prove a hostage to fortune for Mr Blair.
John Holmes was literally standing a short distance away from Tony Blair when those words fell from his boss’s lips.
His own words reflect a sharing of our cynicism about the PM’s sentiments on the day: “the situation looked bleak as we arrived in Belfast late on Tuesday afternoon”, he writes.
The reading of these 19 pages of history from a primary source reveals the tension, the fears, the insecurities of all parties fearful of being outsmarted, such as taoiseach Bertie Ahern, who shared his concern with his British counterpart that he could change Articles 2 and 3, and then get nothing for it.
‘Gobbling them up’
SDLP deputy leader Seamus Mallon made clear SDLP awareness of “Sinn Féin’s strategy of gobbling them up politically”. Sinn Féin warned of the dangers of “the Orange card”.
Some elements in the Ulster Unionist Party felt Dublin wanted to damage their party. UUP leader David Trimble had to deal with his own “40-foot bargepole Man” John Taylor, who put his boss under considerable pressure arising out of a decision by Mr Mitchell to insist on including in the text put on the table late on Monday night two long, unagreed annexes of issues for North-South co-operation.
This, according to Holmes, had “pushed the unionists over the edge”.
There was worse up ahead for David Trimble: Sinn Féin’s desire to be in government without the IRA having given up their guns and their demand for the release of prisoners within two years of the signing of the Belfast Agreement.
With the emerging package now in tatters and Trimble’s camp in revolt, with Jeffrey Donaldson particularly vocal, Holmes discloses that after a difficult meeting with Trimble and his party over Sinn Féin being in government without IRA guns being given up, “we ‘concocted’ a letter to Trimble making clear that, if after six months of the Assembly the present rules to promote non-violent methods had proved ineffective, we would support changing the rules to give them teeth”.
Holmes confirms the PM and his office then “enlisted” Bill Clinton’s help through a direct phone call to Trimble.
Holmes writes “the cause still looked hopeless. Suddenly at about 1630, the picture changed again. Rumours reached us that, following the Prime Minister’s letter and Clinton’s call, Trimble had taken renewed heart and called a vote, which he narrowly won.
History was born.