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Peace process has taught politicians how to grow tribal vote through stubbornness

Newly released State papers shed light on the years immediately after the Belfast Agreement, so much of which is still in dispute or open to interpretation

The challenge of assessing the state of Anglo-Irish relations, as revealed in the annual opening of State papers, was easier a generation ago than it has become in recent years. Before the peace process, Anglo-Irish relations could best be measured at regular taoiseach and prime minister summits. These might be held on the margins of European summits or occasionally at full-blown Anglo-Irish meetings in Dublin or London.

In the Margaret Thatcher era, for instance, how she responded in turn to Charles Haughey or Garret FitzGerald was usually revealing. Her irascibility and her fickleness on Northern Irish policy – to say nothing of the Provisional IRA’s attempt to murder her at her annual conference in Brighton in 1984 – invariably gave added insights into the Dublin-London relationship.

But once the phase of multiparty negotiations was begun, culminating in the Belfast Agreement of Easter 1998, followed by its tortuous out-working, any attempt to assess the state of Anglo-Irish relations became much more complicated.

The contested teasing out of such a multilateral agreement – with so much still in dispute or open to interpretation – triggered a proliferation of specialist files, in both the taoiseach’s department and in the Department of Foreign Affairs, each sounding more promising than the last.

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...for some of the players the delayed choreography is not without its compensations since it seems to win greater market share of their tribe’s vote. Is it not a case of blessed are the recalcitrants for they shall inherit the earth?

And none of these files, one must always remember, was assembled for the elucidation of the historian; rather were they working files for those diplomats, politicians and other stakeholders engaged on various discrete aspects of the negotiations.

As those of us who have lived and worked through all of this as citizens – and as journalists – it can be a frustrating, quite exhausting, and an even boring experience.

One even senses that for some of the players the delayed choreography is not without its compensations since it seems to win greater market share of their tribe’s vote. Is it not a case of blessed are the recalcitrants for they shall inherit the earth?

And in truth, is not that what happened some eight years after the Belfast Agreement when after the review of that agreement at St Andrews in Scotland – which changed the way the first minister and deputy first minister were appointed – Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness emerged in those roles?

Bismark had a point when he suggested we should never ask how sausages are made – or laws; he could have warned us to include peace processes.

What must have become clear from the outset was that procrastination – whether the matter was a quibble or a fundamental matter of principle – did not seem to be punished by the electorate.

Those who were benefiting most in the polls were the slow learners. Could it even be that the slower the learner, the greater the support?

John Reid never hid his impatience with the lack of progress on decommissioning and with Sinn Féin’s claim that ‘they could not do it’. He reckoned they were making a difficult situation virtually impossible

Meanwhile, the cast of characters at the intermittent negotiations did not change very much. But at the Northern Ireland Office (NIO), there was a change, when John Reid replaced Peter Mandelson and became the third Northern Ireland secretary of the Blair government. He was incidentally the first Catholic to hold that job since it had been inaugurated after the imposition of direct rule in 1972.

Reid never hid his impatience with the lack of progress on decommissioning and with Sinn Féin’s claim that “they could not do it”. He reckoned they were making a difficult situation virtually impossible. “Nothing had been delivered in three years.”

On policing, Reid was complaining that Sinn Féin stated it wanted the reforms in the Patten commission report but then “baulked when the government offered Patten”. They then came back looking for “Patten Plus”.

Reid was an impressive Northern Ireland secretary. Dublin experts acknowledged that he had a keen sense of Irish history. Blair’s team must have been pleased with his arrival at the NIO after the complexity and indecision which marked the tenures of his predecessors, Mo Mowlam and Peter Mandelson.

Blair had coveted a calmer and more competent NI secretary – and, above all, one who would not be used as a wedge between No 10 and the NIO. Jonathan Powell, Blair’s key adviser, reckoned that Reid had a “fast and complex mind” and was “one of the few people in the cabinet who could be called an intellectual”. He had wanted the job; appreciated that Blair needed more time to keep the strategic overview in his sights, while allowing his NI secretary to make competent progress and be a known quantity.

Dublin was informed that Reid “manages to be tough and intelligent, to give little away, and yet be still liked by journalists”. It was even noted that he had a sense of humour: to some insiders he liked to claim that he combined the “polish and sophistication of Peter and the delicacy of Mo!”

In all the books which bridge the period from the signing of the Belfast Agreement at Good Friday 1998 to its review at St Andrews some eight years later, there is one characteristic in common: the index entries of the Sinn Féin negotiators Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness far outstrip those of John Hume and Seamus Mallon.

Those who had done the heavy lifting to create the Belfast Agreement had won the plaudits, and the Nobel Prize. And although a surprise to some, Hume’s ceding of the deputy first minister’s role to Mallon was wise and best suited to their respective talents.

And although David Trimble and Mallon settled in at Stormont, thereafter it was the naysayers who seemed to be making all the noise and all the gains.

The parties under greatest pressure were the two parties that had been the most constructive in Northern Irish politics for a generation: the SDLP and the Ulster Unionists.

And they couldn’t but notice that the opinion polls were showing the erosion of their support. A measure of their pain and their decline came in the UK general election of June 2001. This was the first Westminster election after the Belfast Agreement breakthrough. And it demonstrated how initial unionist support for that agreement was fading.

In a discussion with Jack Allen, treasurer of the UUP, on February 2nd, 2001, Ray Bassett of the DFA’s Anglo-Irish division could report that the unionist community believed that the republicans had “already pocketed too much” and were “sick and tired of the insatiable list of demands emanating from Sinn Féin”.

Allen predicted the UUP would “take a beating in the Westminster election” and perhaps on a scale that would force Trimble to resign.

And indeed, at that election, the electorate became more polarised: the UUP declined from 10 seats to six while the DUP increased from two to five. On the nationalist side, Sinn Féin finally overtook the SDLP in terms of the popular vote and increased their seats from two to four, while the SDLP held their three seats, with Hume, Mallon and Eddie McGrady being returned.

The Irish ambassador in London, Daithí Ó Ceallaigh, met Mallon in the immediate aftermath of the election. He found him pessimistic, complaining that the SDLP had run “a very bad campaign” and had suffered by being drawn into a pan-nationalist block with Sinn Féin to ensure nationalist “inclusivity and comprehensiveness”.

Moreover, Hume had been “all over the place”, especially with his comments about post-nationalism. This, Mallon believed, had done “great damage” to the SDLP.

Mallon said the party would not be able to recover without a change of leadership. He himself would not make any attempt to overthrow Hume, nor did he see any such effort in the making, but a new leader was “sorely needed to lift the party and give it direction”.

Although reported in detail, this could scarcely have been news to the informed circles in Dublin that Hume’s position as SDLP leader was under threat, or that Mallon would not be a likely successor.

Hume’s health had been seriously compromised during a conference visit to Austria in 1999. With a marked tendency to being a hypochondriac, Hume was a poor judge of his own failing powers and he showed no sign of having an exit strategy. Nor had the party properly contemplated a succession strategy in terms of the leadership.

Meanwhile there were palpable signs of deep unrest within the SDLP following the Westminster election result. Tom Kelly, for 18 years an SDLP member and MD of Drury Communications in Belfast, had caused quite a stir when he wrote in the Irish News that the SDLP needed new messages and new messengers.

But privately he confided a starker message for the indefatigable intelligence section at Iveagh House. He said the SDLP had lost its younger supporters to Sinn Féin. Kelly believed that were an assembly election to be called at that moment, the SDLP would decline from 24 seats to around 17. Many MLA’s were “in angry and radical mood,” and were “willing to countenance far-reaching changes”.

Tom Kelly said that Hume would be ‘the last leader of the SDLP to be given carte blanche by the party’. It must be appreciated that in a modern party ‘questioning the leadership did not equate to disloyalty’

He regretted that the SDLP leadership seemed to have “parked its nationalist aspirations”, and seemed to regard the Belfast Agreement as essentially a “point of arrival” rather than a starting point “for the achievement of its constitutional aspirations”. Kelly had no doubt where the party would have to place its emphasis: it must make it clear that “its ultimate objective was Irish unity”.

Kelly was in no doubt that Hume would, in the short term, have to step down as leader. He claimed that Mark Durkan, Bríd Rodgers and Seán Farren – all Hume loyalists – had approached the party leader and told him it was time to go. And he reported that Hume “had reacted very badly.”

And would Hume be succeeded by Durkan or Mallon? The problem with Mallon was that “his style of leadership was just as imperious as Hume’s with little, if any, sense of collegiality or consultation”. While Durkan was “more inclusive”, he had the problem that he was without “nationalist credentials”.

Furthermore, Kelly said that Hume would be “the last leader of the SDLP to be given carte blanche by the party”. It must be appreciated that in a modern party “questioning the leadership did not equate to disloyalty. The SDLP needed to become a political party and not a cult”.

Hume resigned the SDLP leadership in November 2001, and he retired from politics in February 2004. When he died in August 2020, Hume was aptly said by former DFA secretary general Seán Donlon to have earned “a place in the pantheon of Irish nationalist leaders” such as Daniel O’Connell and Charles Stewart Parnell.

Dr John Bowman is a broadcaster and historian. His De Valera and the Ulster Question: 1917-1973 won the Ewart Biggs Prize for its contribution to North-South understanding. He has written for more than 40 years on the release of State Papers for The Irish Times