The British and Irish governments had plans to crash Stormont and reintroduce direct rule if a deal wasn’t agreed on devolving policing and justice powers, US diplomats were told.
The drastic step is outlined in leaked US embassy cables, which detail the frustration in London and Dublin at the continued deadlock between the parties.
An agreement was finally reached in February 2010 after summit talks at Hillsborough |Castle.
However, a series of classified dispatches disclose how the process teetered on the brink in the months leading up to the landmark deal.
The cables provide a fascinating insight into the behind-the-scenes tensions and intrigue, and detail:
- The “Plan B” for reinstating direct rule;
- Warnings from Martin McGuinness that the situation was in “near meltdown” over DUP demands on parading;
- How fears of a nationalist backlash hindered Sinn Fein from agreeing to scrap the Parades Commission;
- Anger in Dublin that London was being too soft on the DUP;
- Claims from officials that there was “a real risk of failure” in the final weeks before an historic agreement was reached.
The serious negotiations began during the second half of 2009, with broad agreement on the financial aspects agreed by October.
However, a demand from the DUP to scrap the Parades Commission to increase unionist “confidence” angered Sinn Fein and threatened to stall the talks.
By the start of 2010, officials were fast running out of patience, and privately briefed the US that if the talks failed, direct rule could be reintroduced.
A cable dated January 14, which refers to a meeting with Kevin Conmy from the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs, outlined what would happen in the event of an agreement not being reached.
“According to Conmy, a deal has to happen this week or early next [January 31 2010], otherwise talks will fall apart,” it said.
“At that point, the Irish and UK governments would convene an all-party conference, which Conmy described would be a ‘head-banging session’.”
Mr Conmy said Irish and UK officials were reviewing “Plan B” for reinstating direct rule.
The cable quotes Martin Fraser from the Taoiseach’s office as claiming that would be the wrong thing to do.
“[Shaun] Woodward told the Ambassador that such a move was a last resort.
“Conmy said that both governments wanted to ensure that, ‘even if the negotiations on devolution collapse, the peace process won't’,” the dispatch states.
An earlier cable, reporting on separate meetings between consulate officials and the two party leaders on November 2 2009, indicates the growing crisis.
By early December, Dublin conceded the negotiations were at a precarious stage.
However, a deal was finally agreed on February 4, and in April, Alliance leader David Ford became Northern Ireland’s first Justice Minister for 38 years.