‘War is not over,’ said McGuinness just months after signing Belfast Agreement

Officials spent thousands of hours trying to come up with formula of words that would allow Executive to be formed

Martin McGuinness told the Irish government that “war is not over” when justifying the IRA’s refusal to give up its arms only three months after the signing of the Belfast Agreement.

Despite the signing of the peace accord in April 1998, bitter wrangling between Sinn Féin and the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) beset the process for the rest of the year and stalled progress in setting up the northern institutions.

The stand-off continued because of UUP leader David Trimble’s demand of the IRA to start decommissioning and declare the war was over. Sinn Féin refused to do so on the basis these were obstacles being put up by unionists to derail the process.

On April 29th, 1998, the Provisional IRA issued a statement that said: “Let us make it clear that there will be no decommissioning by the IRA.”

In a meeting with senior Irish officials in July 1998, McGuinness said any such demands would only exacerbate problems for Sinn Féin in managing the process. “The only possible answer was a no-no, going nowhere except into a brick wall,” he said.

He told officials from the Department of Foreign Affairs that Trimble needed to be “disabused” if he thought he could extract statements on decommissioning and the war being over in exchange for a meeting with Gerry Adams, which he had refused to have until then (they eventually met in mid-September).

“All you would end up with is another IRA statement saying that decommissioning will not happen. The war is not over, given the amount of British soldiers and the activities of dissident groups. We are by no means out of the woods,” he said.

Impasse

The seriousness of the impasse is disclosed in confidential government documents from 1991 to 1998 which have been transferred to the National Archive and will be available for public viewing from January.

The government, senior officials and Irish diplomats spent thousands of hours trying to come up with a formula of words that would accommodate both sides and allow the Executive to be formed. The issue dominated most conversations between taoiseach Bertie Ahern and British prime minister Tony Blair.

In a meeting with an Irish diplomat in December that year, SDLP politician Séamus Mallon reflected that Blair was also “almost obsessed with the subject of decommissioning”.

In October 1998, Blair met Trimble and McGuinness separately. Speaking to Ahern about the meetings, he said Trimble had suggested that Sinn Féin could be admitted to the Executive, but only on the basis of an act of decommissioning.

The prime minister believed the UUP would be willing to interpret an act of decommission as an “exploding in the woods”. This was a destruction of arms in a remote place with no independent monitor present. McGuinness made clear that even in this form it was not possible at present, Blair said.

A note of the meeting stated: “The prime minister told the taoiseach that he did not understand how the IRA could object to an ‘exploding in the woods’, which would not require them to issue any statement.

“The taoiseach did not dissent,” said the document, “but noted that the IRA feared if they did something on decommissioning the unionists would simply erect some other obstacle.”

In August, Ahern suggested to Blair that the republican contact for the chairman of the decommissioning body, General John de Chastelain, should not be an anonymous interlocutor, but McGuinness.

“The unionists keep saying Sinn Féin and the IRA are the one organisation. Well, if they are, who better than Martin McGuinness to be the fella who is dealing with it?” he said.

“I said to McGuinness will we drop the word interlocutor and will you deal with de Chastelain and he said ‘I will’.”

In October, also, the idea of a private assurance from McGuinness that IRA decommissioning would happen within the two-year timescale set out in the Belfast Agreement was floated but quickly rejected.

“There is no prospect of an assurance given by McGuinness to Trimble remaining secret,” a senior official noted glumly.

That month, Séamus Mallon of the SDLP met Blair in London and told him that both Sinn Féin and the UUP genuinely wanted the agreement to work but “both seemed unable to give anything in the direction of the other”.

Reconciliation

Intriguingly, DUP leader Ian Paisley who had campaigned so strongly against the agreement seems to have reconciled himself quickly to the new dispensation. The Irish ambassador in London, Ted Barrington, sent a memo to Dublin in July 1998 about a conversation he had with the head of the EU Commission in London, Geoffrey Martin.

Martin, who had dinner in Strasbourg with Paisley several days beforehand, said his understanding was the DUP would take up their two seats and participate in the Executive.

“[Martin’s] impression was that Paisley, seeing that the agreement was going to work, and that the Executive would have considerable powers in the government and administration of Northern Ireland, wanted his hand [or his party’s hand] on the levers of power,” wrote Mr Barrington. (Archive ref: 2021/100/13, 2021/100/19)

Harry McGee

Harry McGee

Harry McGee is a Political Correspondent with The Irish Times

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