How the News Letter was controversially at the heart of Belfast Agreement debate in 1998

The News Letter front page on the day of the referendum
The News Letter front page on the day of the referendum

Twenty years ago, the News Letter found itself not just reporting the news, but making the news in a way which still splits opinion within unionism.

Under the editorship of Geoff Martin, the paper came out firmly in support of the Belfast Agreement, despite the DUP, the UK Unionist Party and many senior Ulster Unionist figures being fiercely opposed to a deal which they believed was disastrous for the Union.

Initially, the paper was cautious, saying in an editorial four days after the agreement had been struck that “only the most politically naive and those unfamiliar with life in this Province will be convinced that it will deliver a lasting peace to our divided community”.

However, in the six weeks between the agreement being reached and being put to the public in a referendum, the News Letter became increasingly supportive of the deal.

On the morning of the vote, a full-page editorial , promoted on the front page with the banner headline: “SAY YES AND SAY IT LOUD!”, proclaimed the paper’s stance in unambiguous terms.

The editorial set out what it said were a range of benefits on offer from the agreement and added: “That chance will be lost forever if the Assembly crumbles: it is no secret that the No campaigners are determined to make it unworkable, and there would be a tragedy equal to anything the Province has yet suffered.

“But if the unionist people unite behind David Trimble, and our politicians behave imaginatively and responsibly in the assembly, they can become the architects and the artisans of a New Model Ulster. Today, unionism and nationalism can begin to work together to build the new model we can be proud of.

“A New Ulster in which there are opportunities and rewards for all. A New Ulster which provides an example to the world of how people with old grudges can set their differences aside, leave the past behind, and walk together into a bright new future.

“Already our politicians, so guilty of narrow-mindedness and inertia in the past, have confounded the critics by producing through negotiations a dignified compromise capable of earning the allegiance of a majority of people in, and across, both traditions.”

Veteran News Letter journalist Billy Kennedy, who was a leader writer around the time of the agreement, said that there had been considerable discussion about the stance which the paper should adopt.

Mr Kennedy said that he remembered discussing the issue with the then editor Geoff Martin and saying “you need to be careful because I’m from rural Ulster and while the chattering classes might be up for something like that, I’m not convinced that [other unionists will agree]”.

The former news editor said that he personally voted against the deal, largely over the release of terrorists prisoners, something about which he felt partly unhappy because “I had written many leaders about paramilitaries and took a very consistent law and order line against paramilitaries — loyalist and republican”.

Mr Kennedy said that the stance “cost us in terms of readership...a significant section of readers fell away”.

Noel Doran, who was deputy editor of The Irish News at the time of the agreement before taking over as editor the following year, said that his paper, which also strongly backed the agreement, and the News Letter had begun to work together on a number of areas during the 1990s, despite editorial disagreement about many political matters.

This co-operation began with joint support for a 1993 trade union and business campaign for peace which had received huge support, showing a cross-community yearning for an end to the killing.

He said that there had followed a number of joint initiatives between the papers on issues from contentious parades to joint fundraising for the children’s hospice.

Mr Doran, who appeared in joint media appearances with Mr Martin at the time of the accord, said that the News Letter had been “at the heart of the debate” about the agreement and that the two papers’ support for the agreement “had a big impact at the time and was generally regarded as a factor, particularly in the unionist community, in terms of calming nerves.

“The role of the News Letter, and the role of papers generally, was definitely very significant —obviously papers had a bigger circulation then.”

David Kerr, who as the Ulster Unionist Party’s director of communications was David Trimble’s key spin doctor as he sought to convince unionism to back the deal, said that he put “a huge amount of work into briefing the media in Belfast”.

He said that although he was clear that the deal represented “a good deal for unionism” by constitutionally protecting Northern Ireland’s place within the UK, other “emotive” issues such as the release of prisoners and policing reform were “exploited by the DUP so, so well that for some people all the constitutional gains of the agreement were lost”.

He said that the DUP, with Peter Robinson as the strategist, had been brilliantly ruthless at finding and highlighting issues in the agreement which were unpalatable to unionists.

“There’s no question about it — the newspapers were absolutely key, as well as radio and television news. That was where you had to have your story straight and get your message out.”

He said in a pre-social media era “people took their lead from papers” and that “trying to do the Good Friday Agreement negotiations today would have been an absolute disaster; a nightmare.

“You had so many people involved — so many people pulling in opposite directions.

“It would have been virtually impossible to keep what was going on within the talks under wraps and the capacity to create fake news at that time would have been unprecedented.”

Later, under the editorship of the late Austin Hunter, who took over in 2004 after a change of ownership, the paper adopted a more sceptical line about the agreement and moved the paper closer to the DUP, before the current editorial policy — of being strongly pro-Union and increasingly concerned about mandatory coalition, but not endorsing any of the unionist parties — emerged.