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John Bowman: Who exactly should get credit for the Belfast Agreement?

Newly released files from 1991-1998 allow for fresh assessment of the peace brokers

While there are major historical and, above all, geographical forces always in play in shaping Anglo-Irish relations, it is also true that individual politicians mattered.

This is manifestly evident as one scans through the copious files just released by the Department of the Taoiseach. And it is also true that the role of individual diplomats becomes increasingly clear in the even larger hoard from the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) covering the 1991-1998 period.

One is constantly prompted to ask: would the Belfast Agreement have been delivered without Bertie Ahern? Or without Tony Blair? Or John Hume? Or Gerry Adams? Or David Trimble? Their individual fingerprints may not necessarily be discernible in what is essentially a compromise agreement but its final shape was dependent on all of their inputs.

The most important point was that with all its checks and balances – and faults – the agreement was to win the approval of 85 per cent of all of the people of Ireland. This level of support was calculated by a 94 per cent approval in the Republic and 71 per cent support in the North. Importantly, exit polls showed that a majority – if a narrow one – of unionist voters approved of the agreement.

It was this level of support that makes the agreement truly seismic. Was it not the most comprehensive endorsement of all-Ireland self-determination ever? When before in all their history had the inhabitants of the island of Ireland had the opportunity to agree so solemnly how best to govern themselves.

This was essentially the lifetime achievement of John Hume and arguably wins him a place in Irish history akin to that of O’Connell, Parnell, Pearse and de Valera. And since ranking for historical greatness, should be measured in terms of impact on events, might not Carson also be included in that list?

Four taoisigh

In the period 1991-1998, no fewer than four individuals occupied the office of taoiseach: Charles Haughey, Albert Reynolds, John Bruton and Ahern. They all brought very different attributes and contributions to the making of the Belfast Agreement.

And what of Sinn Féin? Were their followers not of special importance? True they had given us a ceasefire: but, alas, they had done worse; they had given us two.

Sinn Féin was represented in the process by two remarkable politicians, Adams and Martin McGuinness, acknowledged by Blair as “the supreme masters of the distinction between tactics and strategy”. They knew their destination and were determined “to bring their followers with them, or at least the vast bulk of them”.

Sinn Féin constantly played this card of needing further concessions to avoid a republican split. Throughout the protracted negotiations the two governments often pondered whether their bluff should be called. Reynolds did when he lost his patience waiting for their response to the Downing Street Declaration. He told Adams and McGuinness “that if they don’t do this right, they can shag off”. This is generally considered to have clinched the first ceasefire – and within days, on August 31st, 1994.

And that the Belfast Agreement finally got over the line was also due to two talented American individuals: Bill Clinton as a persuader for an agreement; and George Mitchell as a robust and creative chairman.

Bill Clinton broke the mould of historic American indifference to the North

In Blair’s memoirs he credits Clinton with being “a total brick” throughout, and exploiting that “instant knack of his, getting right to the political nub”. What other US president could, or would, have played such a role?

Clinton broke the mould of historic American indifference to the North. Traditionally the United States had rebuffed all invitations to become involved in Northern Ireland by declaring that as they considered it to be an internal problem for the UK, it would be neither appropriate nor constructive for the US to intervene.

The two government leaders who brought the whole process to fruition, Ahern and Blair, knew how to exploit this American support. They had another advantage: they were both recently elected and especially aware of the importance of momentum in the peace process. It has been likened to a bicycle: if not going forward it falls over.

Blair coveted an early landmark achievement. He was mocked by some for his pre-rehearsed lines as he flew into Belfast Airport for the final round of multi-party talks. “This is not a time for soundbites but I feel the hand of history upon my shoulder.” Some might wince with embarrassment but his press secretary approved, noting in his diary: “Hell of a soundbite. The press loved it.”

There is other evidence that Blair coveted a role in history. This is found in a note by David Donoghue of the Anglo-Irish division in the DFA. While many of his colleagues had perfected their “dining for Ireland” role in some of the best restaurants and clubs in London, the location for Donoghue’s revealing dinner was the Maryfield bunker.

Maryfield was headquarters of the Irish office in Belfast, the hated symbol of Dublin’s “foot in the door”. It derived especial importance in symbolising Dublin’s consultative role under the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement. His guest and informant was John Chilcott who as permanent secretary of the Northern Ireland Office was no friend of Maryfield.

Donoghue’s note of this conversation is typical of how the DFA specialists on the talks process garnered political intelligence the better to inform Irish negotiators.

Chilcott was known to be unsympathetic to Irish interests but a policy had been well honed since FitzGerald’s tenure as taoiseach that “dining with the enemy” yielded better intelligence than cultivating contacts with those of like mind.

Donoghue’s note of July 3rd, 1997, first reported Chilcott’s impressions of the incoming Blair government. They were giving “unprecedented priority” to the peace process, ranking it as “an issue to be cracked” in his first term. And he also reported Blair as having “a sense of historic destiny”.

Chilcott was predicting that if one route was seen to fail this would prompt “an intensification rather than a reduction of effort”. He also reported a shifting response in Downing Street to IRA atrocities. While Major had been prone to feelings of “personal betrayal”, Blair – far from being disheartened – “would be more determined to persevere with his efforts”.

In Downing Street on April 1st, 1994, within days of the Easter deadline by which an agreement had to be concluded, Ahern met Blair. The most succinct record may well be the speaking notes upon which he relied for what had to be a make-or-break summit with Blair.

Ahern had brought his blunderbuss. He complained that he now found his own position “extremely difficult”. This was because the latest draft of the provisions covering a new North-South relationship – which had been drafted by the British – so favoured the unionists who were set to gain “a huge historical prize”. The draft was simply unworkable as it would amount to the acceptance by Irish nationalism of the position of Northern Ireland within the UK. Such legitimacy had been “withheld for seventy years”.

Merely the status quo

Ahern suggested that an equivalent concession by unionists would be a united Ireland. And were nationalists gaining such a prize, he reckoned that “we would give Trimble a blank sheet on which to write his requirements”. What was now on the table was merely the status quo with a few “add ons”. He predicted that such an offer would prove to be “profoundly destabilizing” and would send the SDLP and Sinn Féin “into a spin”.

Ahern concluded that unionists should not be allowed "to blow this prize, as they have done so often in history"

Ahern also bemoaned the loss of an historic opportunity, since Sinn Féin had “after huge debate and hard work” accepted the framework document. This was critical and if incorporated in the “deep agreement” he was envisaging, would result in the gun being “gone forever from Irish politics”.

He concluded that unionists should not be allowed “to blow this prize, as they have done so often in history”. Ahern was flatly rejecting the then British draft on the shape of North-South bodies. And he argued that Dublin was being invited to put its commitments in articles 2 and 3 “in concrete”. The unionists were not reciprocating. “We can’t have concrete on one side, and sand on the other.”

This summit was to prove critical. And in the days and nights which followed there were sufficient concessions, climb-downs, side-deals – and it must be added enough creative ambiguity – for the agreement to be signed on April 10th, 1998. They couldn’t even agree on what to call it: some termed it the Good Friday Agreement while others preferred the Belfast Agreement.

Nor did it mark the end of the conflict but rather the beginning of years of further political squabbling: over how the agreement might be implemented and how it should be interpreted. Some of these disagreements were even plausible. It was so complicated that some mocked it as a Heath Robinson agreement, by which they meant a ridiculously complicated machine to achieve a simple purpose.

While the agreement was vulnerable to this tilt, it must also be allowed that the final document was necessarily complex. Creative ambiguity is seldom bluntly expressed.

Blair could be blunt when rejecting any SDLP complaints: “The trouble with you fellows is that you have no guns.” Mark Durkan advised that the party could at least now appreciate how it felt to be the older brother of the Prodigal Son.

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.