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The paradox at the heart of the Good Friday agreement

10 April 2018

4:24 PM

10 April 2018

4:24 PM

Today marks twenty years since the Good Friday Agreement. Here, Bruce Anderson writing in the Spectator in April 1998, talks of Tony Blair’s key role in securing a deal:

Occasionally, one is glad to be wrong. In this column last week, I wrote about the imminent collapse of the Ulster peace process. It seemed then as if everything was unravelling; the gaps between the various sides had been narrowed and narrowed, but still seemed insurmountable. The ball had brushed the fielder’s fingers, but was now plunging irrevocably to the ground.

For the previous three months, heads of agreement had been established, along similar lines to the Sunningdale agreement of 1973. The SDLP MP Seamus Mallon has described this new settlement as ‘Sunningdale for slow learners’. But Sunningdale failed, though narrowly. The resulting educational retardation meant 25 years of conflict and more than 2,500 deaths. Hence my despairing tone last week; if Sunningdale mark II also failed, what was to prevent a similarly bloody sequel?

But the same thought had occurred to others. By the evening of Wednesday 8 April, the mood had altered. They are not great readers of Nietzsche in Ulster, but experience has taught them the force of one of his maxims: if you stare into the abyss for long enough, it will stare back at you. So by Wednesday night, the negotiators were becoming abyss-averse, and the right personalities were
also involved. Last week’s events were a comprehensive refutation of historical determinism; if some individuals had been absent, there would have been no deal.

The key figure was Tony Blair. Last week, I was rude about the quality of the British officials’ staff-work which produced the first document, and I stand by that. It was a wretched, ill-organised production, as full of unnecessary annexes as of gratuitous insults to Unionism, deficient alike in structure and in sense.


Then everything changed. Not only did Mr Blair make no attempt to stand by that document; he persuaded the Irish Prime Minister, Bertie Ahern, to follow his lead. David Trimble told friends that he had never expected to see the day when a British PM would be quite so rough on an Irish PM in the presence of the leader of the Ulster Unionists.

Mr Blair used his moral momentum to establish a mastery over events. He was also able to call in President Clinton at a crucial stage, to indicate to reluctant nationalists that there could be no appeal from London to Washington. Mr Blair created a climate in which it was impossible for anyone to hold out against him.

The first document may even have helped, though that was a wholly accidental outcome. It ensured that Mr Blair swept into talks which were paralysed by gloom and crisis; it was the ideal setting for him to act as deus ex machina. He was also fortunate in his principal adviser. Jonathan Powell is the younger brother of Sir Charles Powell, who used to be Mrs Thatcher’s private secretary and was famous for industry and stamina. In Belfast, the younger Powell displayed similar qualities. At earlier stages, the detail had been neglected but when he arrived, that ceased.

This does not mean that all the questions of detail have now been resolved. On the contrary; we have no more than a sketchy framework. It will take years to take that into a finished article: years of tense negotiations between politicians and communities who deeply distrust one another.

There is a paradox here. If there had been no deal, most of the inhabitants of Ulster would have been bitterly disappointed. Now that there is a deal, many of the same people are bitterly suspicious. Thirty years of conflict have entrenched sectarianism in minds as well as townscapes. Once Ulster’s people are slightly more secure, a minority will feel generous and try to put the past behind them. But the majority will be far more prone to resentment and blame. In situations of ethnic tension, many individuals find the ambiguities of peace-making much more stressful than the clarities of conflict. There will be a lot of that in Ulster; a lot of people who will be tempted to relieve their stress by provoking a clash. Ulster has always produced more history than it can consume.

There was never going to be an easy road to peace. David Trimble has recognised that for several years now, and has the ability and personality to bring most of his followers with him in a way that his predecessor, Jim Molyneaux, could not have done. But there is one short-term problem. Tony Blair intends to bring John Major to the Province to help him campaign for a yes vote. That is as it should be; this settlement is built on foundations that were laid by Mr Major. But Mr Blair’s magnanimity towards a defeated rival is not shared by the Unionists; in many of their minds, Mr Major has become a focal point for mistrust. This is unreasonable and unfair, but it places limits on Mr Major’s usefulness as a reassurer of Unionists. The government would be wise to co-opt Lord Cranborne to its campaign.

But the serious problems with Unionism will not come immediately. In the longer term, Unionist opinion will be crucially influenced by decommissioning. Unless there is real progress, Unionists could not be expected to accept an executive containing Gerry Adams. Then there is the amnesty, a great source of unhappiness among moderate Unionists. Mr Blair will no doubt ensure that the
international commission on the RUC’s future is manned by fair-minded individuals and it has nothing to fear from sensible scrutiny. But if that report goes wrong and appears while the murderers of policeman are being released, there could be an uncontrollable reaction.

On the subject of murderers, the government should also announce that in future, anyone convicted of terrorist offences will have a normal prison regime. As has recently become clear, terrorists in Northern Ireland are not held in prison conditions but in liberally run prisoner of war camps. There is no reason to extend their laxity to future offenders.

There will be plenty to arouse Unionist hackles, but the greatest threat to the settlement will come from Sinn Fein. In one respect, Gerry Adams has been successful. For some time now he has wanted to make his future contribution to Irish republicanism as an elected politician feted in the drawing-rooms of Boston and Washington. He has had his wish, but there will be a price; many of his
supporters will become disillusioned. If Sinn Fein becomes just another political party, it will have problems with its militants. To paraphrase Adams himself, the military wing has not gone away. They always saw politics solely as a means of exerting different forms of pressure on the Brits; they never intended to join an assembly whose legitimacy had been recognised by Dublin and the
SDLP.

The peace process has now reached a climax, which is not to say that peace has been achieved. But for the first time in a generation, hope is now in the ascendant. So it is likely to remain.


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