Honourable deceptions in the choreography of the Northern Ireland Peace Process

Former Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams reflects on the Good Friday peace negotiations in his office in Leinster House, Dublin, April 8, 2018. Niall Carson/Press Association. All rights reserved. The war in Northern Ireland claimed
approximately 3,700 lives and, by some estimates, injured 40-50,000 people. The
Belfast or Good Friday Agreement, 10 April 1998, is the foundation on which an
uneasy peace was established. This peace was achieved using ‘honourable’
deceptions, both large and small. This is the ‘inconvenient truth’ of the peace

Populists argue that ‘a straight
talking honest politics’ is possible. Realists claim that deception and
hypocrisy is an inevitable part of politics. What is important is to be able to
judge between honourable and dishonourable deceptions. 

In Northern Ireland, the polarisation
of the electorate between nationalists, who favoured Irish unity, and unionists
who wanted to remain part of the United Kingdom, made the use of deception
particularly important in achieving an accommodation.

Labour’s Secretary of State for
Northern Ireland, Mo Mowlam, pointed out that the Good Friday Agreement was
deliberately written to be ‘open to multiple interpretations’. This meant that
unionists could argue that it ‘secured the Union’ while for Gerry Adams ‘it
severely weakened it’. 

The Belfast Agreement was designed to
climax on Good Friday, 10 April 1998. The symbolism of Easter was used to win
support for the deal. The final week of negotiations had been carefully choreographed
to give ‘wins’ to all the parties supporting the deal to maximise public

The US Senator, George Mitchell, had
been given a position paper by the British and Irish governments. He was asked
by the two governments to present this to the Northern Irish parties as his,
rather than their, best estimate of where agreement might be achieved. 

Mitchell realised the paper was too
pro-nationalist because of its emphasis on a strong all-Ireland dimension. ‘As
I read the document I knew instantly that it would not be acceptable to the
unionists.’ But he went ahead with the charade and presented the ‘Mitchell
document’ as his own work.

The purpose of the paper was, most
likely, to create a drama at the beginning of the final week of talks. John
Taylor MP, a leading figure in the more moderate Ulster Unionist Party,
declared that he would not touch the proposals with a ‘forty-foot bargepole’.
Even the centrist Alliance party rejected the proposals. 

This ‘crisis’ was the cue for the
Labour Prime Minister, Tony Blair, and the Irish Taoiseach, (Prime Minister)
Bertie Ahern to fly in and take the stage for the final days of negotiation.
Blair rejected soundbites but nonetheless ‘felt the hand of history on his

The hand of history and decommissioning

The British Prime Minister’s role was
to ‘rescue’ the process and reassure unionists that the Union was safe. He
rejected ‘Mitchell’s paper’ as too pro-nationalist. The Ulster Unionist Party
leader, David Trimble, was handed a unionist victory. 

Unionists claimed that Blair
‘humiliated’ the Irish Prime Minister. The Irish government claimed Ahern had
‘reached out’ to unionists.

Several participants in the talks
suspected choreography. Seamus Mallon, of the nationalist Social Democratic and
Labour Party, was ‘confident’ that changes to the Mitchell document ‘had been
anticipated’. The republican newspaper An Phoblacht reported,
‘The suspicion is that the UUP’s speedy rejection was pre-planned’.

The Ulster Unionist Party won their
‘victory’ on the all-Ireland dimension on the Tuesday of Easter week.
Negotiations continued, and at 3am on Good Friday morning the nationalist SDLP
then won their victory by securing a strong, power-sharing executive. 

Sinn Fein, the political wing of the
IRA, and loyalist paramilitaries secured a ‘victory’ on the release of
paramilitary prisoners. Gerry Kelly, from Sinn Fein, approached the loyalists
arguing that they should adopt a common front on prisoners, demanding their
release within a year.

Remarkably, the loyalists argued
against one year and insisted on two years. They did so out of concern for the
UUP because they believed that David Trimble would not be able to sell an
Agreement to the unionist electorate that released all prisoners within a year.

Decommissioning had already become
they key bone of contention in the peace process. Unionists argued that the IRA
should at least start decommissioning to demonstrate their sincerity in
entering the democratic process. It was undemocratic, they argued, for
republicans to use the threat of violence to extort concessions from the other
non-violent parties. The IRA claimed that decommissioning was a humiliating
demand for surrender.

The UUP rejected the Agreement’s wording
on decommissioning because it did not provide strong enough assurances. At the
last moment Tony Blair provided a ‘side letter’ to the UUP on decommissioning.
John Taylor MP, the Unionist deputy leader, was seen as a unionist hardliner.
When he declared that he was now satisfied on decommissioning, this was thought
to have reassured some wavering UUP sceptics.

Close observers of the peace process
have suggested that Taylor played the role of a ‘shill’ or plant. Taylor plays
the role of a sceptic who, after the side-letter, ‘buys into’ the deal and this
encourages others to overcome their scepticism. This is a charade because all
along Taylor was going to endorse the deal because he was allied to David
Trimble, the UUP leader. 

Theatrical skills

Not all in the UUP were sold on the
Agreement. Jeffrey Donaldson MP walked out of the negotiations because he did
not believe that the wording on decommissioning was strong enough. He later
joined the DUP, which opposed the GFA in 1998, but signed up to a similar deal
at St Andrews in 2006.

David Trimble later accepted that he
had not got strong enough wording in the Agreement on decommissioning. But the
alternative to accepting the GFA was for him to walk away from a deal that
stood the best chance of bringing peace to Northern Ireland since the violence
began in the late sixties. 

In the Referendum campaign to endorse
the Agreement, when it looked like decommissioning was not required, unionist
opinion shifted towards a ‘No’ vote. Tony Blair used ‘hand written’ pledges and
implied that the GFA required more than decommissioning. This was an ‘honourable
deception’. The Prime Minister had good reason to believe that without this
deceit the Referendum would fail, and this risked a return to a war.

On 22 May 1998 ‘Yes’ won the Referendum
on the Agreement. A few weeks later legislation was introduced at Westminster
that resulted in the first release of paramilitary prisoners in September 1998.
In December 1999, Sinn Fein took their seats in the powersharing executive. The
IRA did not begin decommissioning until 23 October 2001, in the wake of 9/11. 

Political actors used their
‘theatrical skills’ to achieve peace in Northern Ireland. Deceptions both large
and small were perpetrated. Hypocrisy was used by actors to present different
faces to different audiences. Many of these deceptions were ‘honourable’
because, in some situations, the end does justify the means. In these
anti-political times it is useful to remember the positive role political
actors can play in making the world a better place.

Gerry Adam's copy of the Good Friday peace accord. Niall Carson/Press Association. All rights reserved.

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