The inside story of how the Belfast Agreement was struck
Confidential notes of Tony Blair’s private secretary reveal see-saw nature of the talks
Former British prime minister Tony Blair and former taoiseach Bertie Ahern signing the Belfast Agreement. Photograph: Reuters
When British prime minister Tony Blair left Downing Street in early April 1998 and headed for Belfast to take charge of the Northern Ireland peace talks with taoiseach Bertie Ahern, it seemed all was on the verge of ruin.
The Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) was poised to reject the first draft of US special envoy for Northern Ireland George Mitchell’s document on what would eventually become the Belfast Agreement, with the party’s deputy leader, John Taylor, famously declaring he would not touch it “with a 40-foot bargepole”.
The Belfast Agreement would go on to become the cornerstone for peace in Northern Ireland, ushering in a new era of co-operation between unionists and nationalists both at the top table of government and in terms of the political structures that stemmed from it.
By Tuesday, April 7th, UUP leader David Trimble had rung Blair three times at Downing Street before faxing him a letter rejecting the deal, citing a host of complaints. Later that day Blair arrived in Belfast with his private secretary John Holmes.
What occurred over the following days would change the Irish political landscape forever. Yet exhaustion and the speed of events meant that much of the detail leading to the signing of the agreement on April 10th – Good Friday – 1998, has up to now been unknown as no comprehensive minutes were known to have been kept.
However, Holmes, who was blessed with good shorthand, did keep a record, which has recently been unearthed by journalist Eamon Mallie. While it is a British version of events, it is one that provides much new insight into the see-saw nature of the talks and the personalities that shaped them.
“The situation looked bleak as we arrived,” Holmes wrote.
Mitchell’s decision to include two long, unagreed annexes covering North-South co-operation and sections on rights, policing and prisoners, which unionists had not seen before, had pushed them “over the edge” and were “too green for their taste”, Holmes recorded.
The British moved swiftly, inviting Trimble to Hillsborough to hear his concerns. “With the important exceptions of the North-South section and decommissioning, these objections did not seem insuperable,” said Holmes. “As important, he still seemed interested in a deal.”
They were joined at Hillsborough by Mitchell, who agreed to sweeping changes to his draft to get the unionists on board. They worked through the night on amendments to present to the Irish side the following morning.
When Ahern arrived from Dublin for breakfast, Blair outlined the landscape. “Ahern made clear in response that he and his team were ready to have a crack at amending the paper, in particular the North-South part,” wrote Holmes. “But he also stressed his own difficulties, and his fear that if one unionist set of demands was met, another one would quickly appear.”
Ahern had already spent hours with Adams trying to persuade him the deal was worth accepting, and listening to Sinn Féin demands for improvements
Ahern then returned to Dublin for his mother’s funeral.
Holmes said the Irish delegation had been “shaken” by the unionist reaction, and were ready to make “significant changes”. The disputed annexes in Mitchell’s draft were shelved,
“The process, therefore, looked as if it might get back on track,” noted Holmes.
The agreement sets out a framework for the creation of a number of institutions across three so-called “strands”.
Strand one dealt with the democratic institutions, and established the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly, while strand two dealt with cross-Border political co-operation such as a North-South ministerial council. The final strand concerned “east-west” issues and institutions to be created between Ireland and Britain.
Holmes wrote that there was “great concern” on the nationalist side that unionists were refusing to engage on strand one issues until their concerns about strand two matters were addressed.
Later that day Blair and his team met the UUP. It was a difficult meeting. “Unionist annoyance with hardline Irish public statements in previous days was very clear,” Holmes recorded. “[Blair] underlined the need to meet the Irish fear that there would never be any North-South implementation bodies because of unionist sabotage.
“Trimble suggested [for the first but not last time] that the Irish actually wanted to damage the UUP politically, but that the UUP were nevertheless ready to talk to the Irish if they were ready to make serious change. It was left that we would talk to the Irish again.”
By prior agreement with Ahern, Blair did not give the UUP the new strand two text “for fear of simply triggering further unionist demands”, wrote Holmes.
Afterwards it was the turn of the SDLP. Holmes said the party was “as reasonable as ever”, but underlined again its concern of no movement on strand one issues. “[Deputy leader Seamus] Mallon made clear SDLP awareness of Sinn Féin’s strategy of gobbling them up politically.”
Ahern would not get back from Dublin until the early evening, and a “frustrating period” followed with no real negotiations. Until Ahern could prove to the unionists that the Irish were up for serious change the process was “effectively stuck”.
“When he eventually did arrive for a bilateral with the prime minister, the initial atmosphere was chilly because the Irish mistakenly thought we had been trying to negotiate with Mitchell behind their back over policing and decommissioning,” said Holmes.
“Apologies from the prime minister quickly restored relations, and Ahern confirmed he was ready to sign up to the paper on strand two, contingent on the unionists being ready to do a reasonable deal on other issues, notably strand one.This was followed by a crucial tripartite meeting with the unionists. Ahern made clear he was ready to make compromises.
“Trimble appreciated Ahern’s return to Belfast from his mother’s funeral and suggested both sides’ political needs could be met,” Holmes recorded, adding that in “a critical intervention” John Taylor now said he thought “proper business could now be done”.
It was, therefore, agreed that the UUP and Irish should meet to try to reach agreement on North-South issues. “We subsequently gave the UUP the new text, suggesting that we thought the Irish would be ready to sign up to it,” said Holmes.
“The UUP and Irish eventually met late that evening for a long and evidently tense discussion. It did not focus on the new text, as we had hoped, but on the difficult issues.
“It was agreed that both sides would go away overnight to draft words to reflect their respective ideas. Some of the Irish side seemed encouraged by the meeting, but Ahern himself commented that it had finished just in time, before blows were exchanged.”
“[Minister for Foreign Affairs David] Andrews and [Minister of State] Liz O’Donnell in particular had clearly taken a negative line – a problem which was to plague us further in the next 24 hours,” wrote Holmes, adding that Blair was furious that the Irish and UUP would not talk through the night
“He feared the delay would make things worse – a fear which proved amply justified the following morning. But Ahern was clearly too tired for an all-night session to be possible.”
Later that evening Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams came in to see Blair on his own. “He was friendly and philosophical as always, but his underlying message was worrying,” said Holmes, “Sinn Féin wanted to sign up to a deal, but we had to give them a deal they could sign up to.”
That had to mean more than the release of prisoners.
Blair asked John Hume and Mallon immediately afterwards if they thought Sinn Féin would sign up. Both thought Adams genuinely wanted to do so. But this question was to be a constant preoccupation for the next 36 hours: “We eventually returned to Hillsborough after midnight, frustrated that so little progress had been made.”
Early on Thursday, Blair rang Trimble to again say he thought a deal on strand two was possible but that the Irish were in a fragile state. He “should not therefore push his luck too far on other issues”, Blair told Trimble, “and should in particular engage quickly with the SDLP on strand one”. Trimble said he understood.
Shortly afterwards, over breakfast with Blair, Ahern voiced his “extreme suspicion” about unionist intentions, recalling past failures to honour promises made in 1921 and 1973. Westminster legislation was needed to ensure that North/South bodies would be created. “The Irish also showed further concern about Sinn Féin’s position,” Holmes added.
Back in Castle Buildings at Stormont, a “frustrating morning” passed. “We had assumed both the Irish and UUP had been drafting overnight, but in fact neither had, and a long gap followed,” said Holmes.
“It gradually became clear that the two were not capable of solving their problems bilaterally – the mutual distrust and hostility were too great. From now until virtually the end of the talks, we negotiated with both by proxy, and kept them apart.”
At midday Trimble brought Blair and Holmes the unionist draft, and “made clear” it would have to be the basis of any deal. He also said decommissioning would be “a show-stopper”.
Blair put the proposal to Ahern and “pushed him hard”. The taoiseach accepted that the basis of a deal was there, but again sought Westminster guarantees.
Department of Foreign Affairs secretary general Dermot Gallagher studied the text in detail, and suggested more changes. Blair then put the amendments to Trimble, who accepted the essential ones. “A deal appeared to have been struck on strand two, and a breakthrough achieved,” said Holmes.
Strand One negotiations now began in earnest, but problems soon appeared. “Word began to reach us of serious difficulties about the new text in the Irish camp ... and unhappiness on the part of Sinn Féin and the SDLP,” wrote Holmes.
Blair explained to both why they should be satisfied. “The SDLP seemed reasonably convinced. Sinn Féin were not. After a long period of silence from the Irish, during which the prime minister tried in vain to contact the taoiseach, [civil servant Paddy] Teahon shamefacedly gave me a completely revised text,” Holmes wrote.
“It was a disaster. The Irish had altered the balance fundamentally, reintroducing the necessity for Westminster legislation throughout the text, and putting all the responsibility in the hands of the two governments. There was fury on our side that the deal had so quickly fallen apart.”
Blair quickly told Ahern the text could not be seriously reopened, but he was ready to see if the UUP would accept lesser changes. He met Trimble and Taylor, and put the Irish changes to them. They accepted four of the six changes, believing that they did not fundamentally alter the balance of the text.
“The Irish were in turn satisfied,” said Holmes, “The deal seemed to be back on, and attention could switch back to the wider problem of whether Sinn Féin would sign up to a deal, not least since Ahern had made it increasingly clear that a deal would be almost impossible for the Irish if they did not.
“Ahern had already spent hours with Adams trying to persuade him the deal was worth accepting, and listening to Sinn Féin demands for improvements, particularly on policing, security, the Irish language and prisoners,” he wrote.
Northern secretary Mo Mowlam had spent much of the previous two days on the latter subject, with the British side “deliberately refusing to reveal our hand”, he said.
However, Sinn Féin’s public line had turned negative. Fearing collapse, there were “two very long meetings” with just Blair and Ahern on one side, and Adams and Martin McGuinness on the other. This was followed by a 3am telephone call to Adams from US president Bill Clinton, which “seemed to turn the tide”.
“It eventually became clear early in the morning of April 10th that, while they would not sign up to the deal on the spot, not least because of their annual conference a week later, they were ready to make positive noises about it and argue for it.
“It was made clear in return that while we would stick for now to the planned two-year release deadline for prisoners, we would be ready to advance this if Sinn Féin did sign up and circumstances allowed.”
Early on Friday morning the UUP accepted the essence of what they had rejected for so long: a Northern Ireland Executive with a first minister and deputy first minister, and a reasonable form of sufficient cross-community consensus for voting on key issues.
“Exhaustion was combined with a degree of satisfaction and optimism,” said Holmes. “But we were also uncomfortably aware that there was bound to be a last-minute obstacle, and the UUP would no doubt find reasons to dislike the texts.”
A mini-crisis then arose over the annex listing the areas where separate or joint North-South implementation bodies would be set up. The Irish were unhappy since just 12 were proposed, together with the fact that few of them were what they had wanted.
They claimed to have persuaded the UUP during the night to accept an Irish language promotion body and a trade Promotion and indigenous company development body, both of which the UUP had fiercely resisted. “We stupidly took their word for it,” said Holmes.
“When the UUP saw the new list they blew a fuse, accused the Irish of duplicity and refused to accept any more than the original list. The Irish in turn dug in their heels, and a lengthy impasse followed, with Mitchell (whose role in the previous 48 hours had effectively been zero) unable to circulate a new text and getting increasingly angry.
“We were also tearing our hair out. Eventually the prime minister brought Ahern and Trimble together again. Trimble had been given fierce instructions by his colleagues not to accept another body or not to bother coming back. He was adamant. Ahern pressed, but in vain.
“Eventually Trimble, at his most boorish, was persuaded to propose again a pretty meaningless health body. We sold this to an unhappy Ahern on the basis of an additional reference in the text to other bodies being considered and an exchange of letters with Trimble where Ahern set out four Irish requests again, and Trimble agreed to consider them later.
“This fudge allowed the text to be circulated around midday. We sat back and waited for the next problems,” Holmes added.
They were not long in coming. First, the UUP insisted the Anglo-Irish secretariat at Maryfield be closed by the end of the year, but the Irish resisted further concessions to the UUP.
“Then the unionists wanted to change the wording on decommissioning,” said Holmes. “We told them it was impossible, but it quickly became clear that Trimble’s troops were in general revolt, particularly his young staffers, but also major figures like [Jeffrey] Donaldson.
“Faced with the prospect of selling to their community a deal involving Sinn Féin at the Assembly and government table with no guarantee of decommissioning, with all prisoners out in two years...they were losing their nerve.”
Blair spoke to Trimble several times by phone. “We deployed all the big picture arguments we could,” said Holmes. “But Trimble still seemed to be losing the argument and to share most of his colleagues’ reservations. It began to look hopeless, and despair took hold.”
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 had narrowly won
Trimble eventually brought a senior UUP delegation to see Blair. “All effectively said the text was unacceptable and unsaleable to unionists,” said Holmes. “The prime minister let his despair show but said he was ready to help if he could, but not by reopening the text itself.
“The delegation made clear that the single biggest issue was the prospect of sitting round the cabinet table with Sinn Féin when there had been no decommissioning. The prime minister promised to consider this.
“When they had left 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.
“We sent this off without much hope, and meanwhile enlisted Clinton’s help through a direct phone call to Trimble. The cause still looked all but hopeless, although Trimble had said one or two things which suggested he was determined to make his colleagues swallow the agreement.”
Suddenly, at about 4.30pm, 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 had narrowly won.
“This seemed too good to be true, but Trimble quickly rang to confirm that the way was now clear for the plenary to be held, and Mitchell arranged it for 5pm.”
The plenary itself was relatively devoid of drama. The vote was swift. “And that was it,” said Holmes. “There was no applause when sufficient consensus was achieved – just a stunned silence.”