The former Ulster Unionist Party leader DAVID TRIMBLE shares an extensive recollection of the run-up to the talks that culminated in the Belfast Agreement on April 10 1998, which was Good Friday
Because the ground rules for the talks, including sufficient consensus [rather than unanimity], had already been agreed, when republicans accepted the [Mitchell principles on peace and democracy] they were binding themselves to accept the outcome of a process in which they had no veto.
The SDLP were then the majority party within nationalism.
If we obtained their agreement, we could then do a deal which Sinn Fein would have to accept. This is why there was no need for me to ever actually to talk to them.
It is understandable therefore that the republican leadership’s endorsement of this led to a major split within the republican movement.
The months after Sinn Fein entered the talks were not productive.
The talks broke up on 16 December for Christmas without being able to agree to an agenda.
Unknown to the public and most talks participants, Tony Blair had started to take a direct interest well before the Christmas recess.
Bits of paper reached us from Downing Street with words outlining what might be in an agreement. These evolved into a short paper.
WEDNESDAY APRIL 8
In a long session which went into the small hours of Thursday, we agreed in principle on the arrangements for north south co-operation in terms that were quite satisfactory to us.
THURSDAY APRIL 9
While there were meetings on a number of other matters during the day, including a meeting of the Ulster Unionist Executive in the early evening, the crucial Strand One meeting with the SDLP did not take place until late on Thursday.
By then we knew we had a very satisfactory position on the constitutional matters.
This time Articles Two and Three of the Irish constitution were going to be changed.
The territorial claim over Northern Ireland was going to go.
We also knew that the so-called balanced changes to the British constitution would be just the reiteration of the existing position.
We also had a Strand Two settlement which did not pose any constitutional problems.
There were the issues which were later to dominate the public debate, namely, policing, decommissioning and prisoners, and various colleagues were engaged with them. But on Thursday there were not seen as crucial to getting an agreement, what was crucial was getting the SDLP’s agreement on Strand One.
If the new administration was to work successfully, it would require a good working relationship between ourselves and the SDLP.
I had no illusions of the DUP working with us. I knew that if we achieved an agreement they would oppose us bitterly, no matter what the deal was. But I thought that the unionist electorate would be more concerned about the constitutional and cross border issues, and would be more ready to compromise on power sharing.
The SDLP would also face criticism from Sinn Fein. But any Sinn Fein criticism on constitutional matters would be directed primarily at the Irish government.
The SDLP vulnerability would be on Strand One, where a return to Stormont would be problematic for northern nationalists and the SDLP would need to be able to show that they had not surrendered nationalists to unionist domination.
The SDLP had spent a lot of time in the talks devising and polishing procedures to protect minorities.
We were sceptical about their practical use. But the SDLP considered that they were necessary for them if they were to survive Sinn Fein attacks.
Viewed in these terms the course of action for us seemed clear, and we conceded them. Those procedures are set out in paras. 11 to 13 of Strand One of the agreement provide for a special committee to vet legislations and petitions of concern.
This left the question of whether we would move from our executive committee model, which I inherited from the 1992 talks, to the ministerial model that virtually every other participant in the talks preferred.
I had long known, without ever actually saying so, that our position on this was untenable.
I think most of my colleagues were of the same mind, and our move did not I think create any general controversy.
Some veterans of the 1992 talks have, however, grumbled since.
One curiosity — at the very end of that session with the SDLP, they asked if we could revert to using the term ‘minister’ for the person exercising executive power, rather than the more modern ‘secretary’.
After a brief consultation, we agreed, to be surprised at their rather emotional reaction.
It almost seemed that this word meant more than everything else. I suspect it was a reflection of their feelings during the old Stormont days.
It is interesting to note that neither the SDLP nor Sinn Fein had cause to invoke these minority protection procedures during the operation of the first assembly. But this may because of the rule we adopted in the executive that any proposal or decision could be blocked by any three ministers.
This in turn meant that no proposal was ever brought to the executive unless the minister to bring it was sure that it would not be blocked.
In fact we only ever had one vote in the executive.
We were of course, rather amused, when the three minister rule was a key feature of “gains” the DUP claimed that they had made in the 2004 ‘Comprehensive Proposals’ and has since been trumpeted as putting an end to so-called problem of “unaccountable ministers”.
On the last day, the meeting with the SDLP on Strand One went into the small hours of Friday morning.
On its conclusion we were then waiting for the chairman’s office to pull together all the bits of the negotiations into a revised draft agreement.
Later in the morning the draft appeared.
I physically separated it distributed to our various working groups and then after it had been digested called all the team, about 20 together, for a decision.
As we walked into the room I overheard Peter Weir, who just in front of me saying, “Who says we are going to agree this?”
This led me to start the meeting rather more forcefully than I should. But John Taylor, who was sitting beside me cautioned restraint.
John announced that he had a list of about 20 problems that he wanted to go through, and he started.
John’s points were all genuine, but for most of them we could find a satisfactory answer. In effect, John was pulling the teeth of the possible objections to the agreement.
We boiled it down to two key problems, prisoner release and the linkage of decommissioning to holding office.
I drew a distinction between the 12 constitutional and institutional aspects of the matter and policy issues.
The former, the constitutional changes, the north/south structures, the assembly were generally acceptable.
These matters, I pointed out, would be permanent and they represented a good deal for unionism against the background of the hated Anglo-Irish Agreement and what might happen if we were unable to make a deal.
On the other hand the policy matters were within the responsibility of the government, whether we made a deal or not.
The government would almost certainly proceed with them even if we refused to agree to the proposed agreement. On decommissioning and holding office I conceded the weakness of the draft.
It did provide for exclusion, but only on a cross community vote where there was a very real danger that the SDLP would decline to act. Yet I pointed out that there was a degree of linkage, which could perhaps be built on.
An entry in Antony [Alcock]’s diary gives his assessment of the position at about this point in the discussion.
“I saw it as 6 – 3 for a deal – but with great misgiving that not to accept would be even worse. (Trimble, Taylor, Maginnis, Alcock, Empey and Nesbitt versus Donaldson, Weir and Campbell)”
This was Antony’s reading of the position. There was no vote, no decision.
I was not sure of John Taylor’s opinion, and I would have considered David Campbell’s position as much more open than that of Weir and Donaldson.
I suggested we go to Blair and make one last effort.
I asked the talks team which of the two key issues they considered most important. There was an immediate consensus that decommissioning was more important than prisoner release.
The delegation that went up to the prime minister contained the five most senior members of the talks team, myself, John Taylor, Reg Empey, Ken Maginnis, and Jeffrey Donaldson.
We all knew that this meeting with the prime minister was the last shot in our locker: that it would have to be followed by hugely significant decisions.
The meeting was low keyed, polite, but with an undercurrent of tension.
We explained the problem. Blair’s response was, not unexpectedly, that he could not unilaterally change the text that was agreeable to the other parties and that it was not realistic to try to restart the negotiations at that late hour.
I then mooted the idea of a letter from Her Majesty’s Government (HMG) containing some helpful commitments on the matter.
I referred to the post agreement transition period in which perhaps the issue could be resolved. I even suggested some matters that such a letter could contain. Blair appeared to be receptive and undertook to consider the matter.
This had been my intention in seeking the meeting, and having used the post-agreement, pre-devolution interval to solve the problems in Strand Two, I was hoping to do the same in Strand One. But, contrary to other accounts I did not return with a letter in my pocket.
We had to wait for it.
On returning from the meeting with meeting with Blair I gathered all the senior party officers and some key talks team members in my room. But so many people kept barging into my room, out of a very natural curiosity that the door of my room was locked.
There was then a significant wait for the Blair letter to arrive.
I remember at around this point, Jim Rodgers coming up to me and asking, in a low key manner, if I realised that all four honorary secretaries of the party, of which he was one, were against the deal. But there was no hint in his tone that they would refuse to accept majority decisions, which in fairness to him, he, alone of the four, did.
While we were waiting, a call came through from President Clinton.
I took the call at my desk in that room and all present could clearly hear my end of the conversation.
Taking the call in the absence of colleagues would only have added to their anxiety.
Clinton began to give what sounded as the beginning of an extended statement of how good an agreement would be for Northern Ireland. I cut across this to saying that I could bring him up to speed.
I explained briefly our problem — decommissioning and its weak linkage to holding office.
I told him there was a possible solution, namely as yet unknown commitments from Blair in a letter that was expected as we spoke.
I then asked him to speak to nationalists to give the letter we hoped would contain such commitments the space in which to work.
He hung up with the words that he would get across the matter immediately.
Jonathan Powell, the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff arrived with his letter.
John stands beside me as I open the letter.
I read it, holding it so that John can read it too. “That’s OK. We can run with that.” he muttered to me.
For me that was the signal for my final decision.
The letter from Tony Blair said:
“I understand your problem with paragraph 25 of Strand One is that it requires decisions on those who should be excluded or removed from office in the Northern Ireland executive to be taken on a cross-community basis.
“This letter is to let you know that if, during the course of the first six months of the shadow assembly or the assembly itself, these provisions have been shown to be ineffective, we will support changes to these provisions to enable them to be properly effective in preventing such people from holding office.
“Furthermore, I confirm that in our view the effect of the decommissioning section of the agreement, with decommissioning schemes coming into effect in June, is that the process of decommissioning should start straight away.”
I then made it clear that I was going to accept the agreement.
There was no formal vote, but my clear impression was that a majority of the party officers agreed with me, and that only a few disagreed.
We all knew that decision could be delayed no longer and I think everyone had known for some time what my view was.
Mitchell recalls that I called him at 4.45 pm saying that we were ready for the final plenary session.
We started to move across the corridor from my office to the party’s general room.
Added to the problem of just getting so many into the room without an uncontrolled release of information, was the behaviour of the Alliance delegation whose room was just down the corridor.
They were out in the corridor and approached us as we were moving between the rooms. Words were exchanged. A very senior Alliance member got quite excited and was shouting.
Henry McDonald has the unionist protagonists as Taylor and Donaldson, but when I saw the commotion, my concern focussed on Ken Maginnis, who looked likely to respond in a characteristically vigorous manner.
I separated them ushered the Alliance notable back into his room and may have indicated to him that he had no need to get so worked up.
Reg Empey recalled the brief meeting in that room, with over 50 people then present, as the seminal moment of the talks.
I recall it as being more of the announcement of a decision taken, rather than one to be made, but Reg is right in that, “if the room had turned against him, that would have been it”.
It was just after this that, thinking of the talks rules that delegations consist of three at the table with three sitting behind in support, I said, conversationally, “right I’m going up, whose coming up with me?”
I did not address this question specifically to Donaldson, but he was standing near by, and my recollection is that he, equally conversationally, asked to be left out as he had to leave for a family holiday.
When we got to the conference room there was a delay as the chairman had waived the rules on numbers and many people were crowding in, particularly in the delegations of the paramilitary related parties.
The chairman then asked each party in alphabetical order whether they accepted the final document.
Answering for the Ulster Unionist party, I said “yes” adding that I was accountable for that decision to the Ulster Unionist Council.
The chairman then announced that the vote had been carried on the basis of a sufficient consensus, Sinn Fein having abstained.
There then followed after an interval the final addresses to the plenary.
As usual I had asked some colleagues for suggestions before going up for the final session.
David Campbell gave me a sentence which I liked, thinking it struck just the right tone for the final paragraph and I was given a piece of paper with a sentence which I used for the central paragraph.
“We see this agreement as addressing the wounds which have damaged our society, ensuring that our diverse traditions attract respect and, above all, laying the foundations for a healthy, vibrant democracy to replace the stagnation, frustration and powerlessness of the last three decades.”
I did not know it had been drafted by Antony until I read his diary.
I did not wait for the others to make their statements.
On John’s advice, I slipped out to get to the media before anyone else could, but not before thanking John for his support.
Were we right to make the agreement?
My answer is still yes.
I think my argument that the constitutional and institutional aspects of the agreement, which would endure, were, on balance, favourable, and that the negatives were short-lived, unchangeable aspects of government policy, was and is absolutely right and has been completely vindicated by recent political developments.
Yet it may be said that the short term negatives, prisoners, policing and the slow and reluctant paramilitary change, eroded support for the agreement, resulting in the eclipse of the Ulster Unionist party and my personal defeat in Upper Bann in 2005.
Could those negative aspects have been changed or ameliorated?
Not, I think, on 10 April 1998, but, yes, in the months and years afterwards, they could have been avoided or made acceptable. In other words the post agreement difficulties were not inevitable.
I still think that this issue was over-hyped, both at the time and since. The numbers, just over 200 on “each side”, were small in comparison with the total offences committed and with those prisoners who already released.
Moreover, it was generally accepted in political circles that, in the event of an agreement, something would be done for prisoners.
This was even accepted by Ian Paisley for, during the Brooke talks, he wrote to a loyalist prisoner, who was regarded as a go-between to the loyalist leadership in prison, saying, “if we do manage to achieve an alternative to the Anglo-Irish Agreement and a democratic government is set up in Northern Ireland matters in relation to prisoners would have to be looked at very closely indeed with all the various considerations being weighed in the balance” 22 May 1991.
On 11 May 1998 a Billy McCaughey who had served 16 years in prison for a murder committed in 1977, gave an interview to the Irish News.
In the interview he claimed that he had acted as liaison with the paramilitaries and that, “I had reassurance from Paisley and Robinson that if the talks reached a successful conclusion then the issue of prisoners would have to be looked at. Even in 1991 the DUP was prepared to accept that the prison issue had to be resolved”.
It caused us great amusement in the Upper Bann constituency that one of the most vociferous local DUP critics of prisoner release had himself benefited from early release from prison.
I think the real heat in this issue was the comparison, between the state doing things for terrorists, while terrorists refused to reciprocate.
This was the real problem. It concerned more than the mere act of giving up or destroying weapons, important though that is in itself.
The big underlying issue was whether paramilitaries were prepared to decisively give up violence and criminality and participate in society and politics on the same basis as everyone else.
Early decommissioning of weapons linked to early release of prisoners would have indicated clearly to the public that the paramilitaries were really changing.
There was implicit linkage in the agreement, the two year period for prisoner release paralleled the two period for the completion of disarmament.
Had the government insisted on that linkage, and it was clearly open for it to do under the agreement, then the implementation of the agreement would have gone smoothly.
Decommissioning would have begun long before the inclusive executive would have been formed. The unionist electorate would have seen the giving up of weapons as an explicit statement that the terrorist campaign was over and an implicit statement that it had been wrong, and they would then have been prepared to accept former “activists” participating in office in the new dispensation.
It should be remembered that in May 1998, at the time of the referendum opinion polls indicated that a majority of unionists favoured the agreement, with its inclusive executive, at a level consistent with the result in that referendum. But a few months later in the autumn, opinion polls indicated that a significant shift had occurred to a more sceptical position.
The honeymoon was short and the probability is that unconditional prisoner release, the repeated republican denial of an obligation to decommission, coupled with their repeated self-justification, when a little humility, if not forthright apology would have been more appropriate, caused the disenchantment.
Should we have refused to make the agreement because the firm exclusion provision we had discussed with Blair at Chequers had been weakened?
If we had, would we have been supported by public opinion in Northern Ireland?
Hard core unionist opinion probably would have rallied round, but opinion generally would not, and outside Northern Ireland, opinion would have rounded on unionism, with potentially catastrophic consequences.
The republican game plan had been to create a pan nationalist front, persuade the world that unionism was the problem, and then move the British government to make major constitutional changes.
By making the Agreement, we neutered that plan.
It is often said that the Blair letter was of no effect. This is wrong. As a paper, issued before the actual agreement and not objected to by any of the other parties it is, in international law, an authoritative interpretation of the text of the agreement.
So, Blair’s final paragraph on the commencement of decommissioning is to be regarded as an authoritative explanation of the decommissioning section of the agreement.
So it would have been an enormous help to him had he been prepared to insist on that statement, and suspend prisoner release until decommissioning began.
Before the final stage of the Agreement there was a consensus to kick this past the final negotiations as an issue which would be too difficult to resolve. The chosen means was the appointment of a commission.
So our concern was with its terms of reference.
Our concern was with the break-up of the police, either geographically or functionally (two tier policing), because that might enable former paramilitaries to gain control of policing in some areas or in respect of some functions.
In a real sense the integrity of the present police force, which structurally is the same force that existed in 1998, has been preserved.
ANTI AGREEMENT UNIONISTS
No-one can ever know for certain what might have been, but I believe that had Paisley and McCartney stayed and fought from within, there would have been no agreement.
Their absence freed the UUP from daily attacks at the negotiating table, and gave the party room to negotiate that it might not otherwise have had.
The objective of the DUP was to prevent an agreement occurring, oblivious of the consequence that that would have played into hands of republicans.
In any event our experience of working with the DUP in the Brooke and Mayhew talks in 1991/2 was quite negative.
Then we had to devote most of our effort it trying to get the DUP to agree a realistic position.
They were a constant obstacle to progress and contributed to the failure of those talks which were the last chance unionism had to do a deal without the presence of Sinn Fein.
• This is an edited version of Lord Trimble’s Antony Alcock Memorial Lecture, delivered at the University of Ulster in 2007. It has been condensed with his approval