McGuinness and Ervine went ‘face to face’ during testy Belfast talks

SF negotiator blamed unionists for ‘creating a climate where murder was inevitable’

A flavour of the detailed multi-lateral talks involving the British and Irish governments and the Stormont parties in the run-up to the Belfast Agreement is disclosed in previously confidential files from 1998.

In a minute on the talks session dated January 13th, 1998, Alan Smyth of the Northern Ireland Office’s talks planning unit recorded a dramatic confrontation between the late Martin McGuinness of Sinn Féin and the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) leader, the late David Ervine.

According to the report, the talks chairman Senator George Mitchell had just asked the participants to consider the proposals for “Heads of Agreement” when Mr McGuinness stated that it would be of immeasurable help if the Ulster Unionist Party would recognise the inclusiveness of the process and engage with his party in bilaterals.

The absence of this, the former IRA commander insisted, was “creating a climate where sectarian murder was inevitable”.


In response to Mr McGuinness, Mr Ervine of the UVF-linked PUP “engaged him in a face to face confrontation”.

Mr Ervine totally rejected the allegation that anybody in the room was responsible for a single death over the past weeks.

“Mr Ervine said that Mr McGuinness’ observation was quite frankly an insult and he resented the use of threatening language.”

In response, McGuinness said that nothing he had said could be interpreted as a threat in any way. Senator Mitchell then brought the discussion to a close.

A more cheerful encounter was recorded the following month when the SDLP deputy leader Séamus Mallon impressed an audience composed of the two governments and the parties to the talks by role-playing as a unionist politician.

‘Palpable good humour’

Noting that the discussion around Strand 2 (North-South matters) was characterised by “a palpable sense of good humour” among the participants, Mr Smyth reported that “the most important exchanges were between Jeffrey Donaldson [who was then part of the UUP] and Séamus Mallon during which Mr Mallon attempted to persuade Mr Donaldson to accept the merits… for a North-South Council rather than seeing it only in economic and political terms”.

The UUP representatives explained that, while they were not advocating a return to the old Stormont, likewise the new North-South body could not be “a Trojan horse for a United Ireland”, the record of February 24th read.

The discussion concluded when Mr Donaldson, at the request of Séamus Close of Alliance, explained what he thought nationalists needed for a settlement. Later, minister of state Liz O’Donnell and the SDLP’s Seán Farren said unionists must recognise that a North-South body needed a strong political dimension.

At this point, Mr Close invited Mr Mallon “to put himself in the shoes of a unionist trying to sell the terms of a settlement to his electorate”.

Mr Mallon explained that he would say he had achieved constitutional change in the Republic; he had been able to guarantee the principle of consent; and he had brought back power to the people of Northern Ireland and, for all this, “he had only had to concede a North-South Council of Ministers to which they, the Unionists, would be members”.

Mr Donaldson reminded Mr Mallon that he had omitted the new East-West arrangements.

There then followed a debate in which the Irish government, Alliance and Sinn Féin sought to convince the unionist parties that any North-South body could only evolve by agreement. Donaldson said he could live with possible areas of cooperation.

In a note on Mr Mallon’s performance “posing as a Unionist”, the NIO official wrote: “He demonstrated that, if he chose, he had the potential to become an extremely accomplished and able Unionist politician”.

Mr Donaldson resigned from the UUP in 2003, becoming a member of the DUP, the party he now leads.