The Orange Order raised a number of key issues including the release of paramilitary prisoners and a future Border poll in a historic meeting with the British prime minister, Tony Blair, two weeks after the signing of the Belfast Agreement.
Newly declassified files reveal the content of discussions between Mr Blair and five representatives of the order at 10 Downing Street on May 7th, 1998.
Those present included grand master Robert Salters; Dennis Watson, a prominent Portadown Orangeman; and George Patton. Also present were Northern secretary Mo Mowlam and Mr Blair’s adviser, Jonathan Powell.
Mr Salters told Mr Blair: “The Grand Lodge was a religious organisation, not a political one, but the NI Agreement was so important that the lodge thought they should take a view. There was a particular preoccupation with decommissioning.”
“Where did things stand?” Mr Salters asked Mr Blair. The prime minister said the independent commission would be setting out a clear timetable and the process should be completed in two years. Their aim was to “detach Sinn Féin” from violence for good.
Mr Watson asked about the proposed referendum on a united Ireland provided in the agreement. “People feared that in 30 years’ time the nationalists might be a majority and insist on using it.”
Blair replied that the seven-year interval between referendums was supposed to reassure people. The British government had no plans to hold a referendum and “there was certainly no requirement to hold one every seven years”.
Intervening, Ms Mowlam added that the situation in 2025 ought to look very different. Besides, opinion polls showed that some 10 to 15 per cent of the nationalist community wanted the union preserved.
Turning to British attitudes, Mr Salters said that Northern Ireland “seemed to be seen by most people in Britain as a burden”. However, Mr Blair rejected this and said that he himself valued the union.
On prisoners, the Orangemen said some would get out reasonably early but were “guilty of the most hideous crimes for which they have not repented”.
In response, Mr Blair said that this was a most difficult issue but prisoner releases had always played a part in similar situations in the world.