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The truth about the Good Friday Agreement is that, if it wasn't for deliberate deceptions, there would be no peace process here

The 1998 document was ambiguously drafted so it would be open to multiple interpretations... otherwise you wouldn't have had a deal. By Paul Dixon


Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern sign the Good Friday Agreement

Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern sign the Good Friday Agreement

Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern sign the Good Friday Agreement

The "war" in Northern Ireland claimed approximately 3,700 lives and, by some estimates, injured 40,000-50,000 people. The Belfast (or Good Friday) Agreement - signed on April 10, 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 process.

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

The US Senator George Mitchell had been given a position paper by the British and Irish Governments.

He was asked by the them to present this to the Northern Ireland 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 Ulster Unionist Party, declared that he would not touch the proposals with a "40-foot barge pole".

Even the Alliance Party rejected the proposals.

This "crisis" was the cue for Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair and Taoiseach 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 shoulder.

The 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. 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 SDLP 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 its "victory" on the all-Ireland dimension on the Tuesday of Easter week.

Negotiations continued and, at 3am on Good Friday, the SDLP then won its victory by securing a strong power-sharing Executive.

Sinn Fein and loyalist paramilitaries secured a "victory" on the release of paramilitary prisoners. Gerry Kelly of 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 Trimble would not be able to sell an agreement to the unionist electorate that released all prisoners within a year.

Decommissioning had already become the key bone of contention in the peace process. Unionists argued that the IRA should at least start decommissioning to demonstrate its 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 Blair provided a "side letter" to the UUP on decommissioning. Taylor, the Ulster Unionist deputy leader, was seen as a 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 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 is allied to Trimble, the UUP leader.

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 Good Friday Agreement in 1998, but signed up to a similar deal at St Andrews in 2006.

Trimble later accepted that he had not got strong enough wording in the Agreement on decommissioning. But the alternative to accepting the Good Friday Agreement 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-1960s.

In the referendum campaign to endorse the Agreement, when it looked like decommissioning was not required, unionist opinion shifted towards a No vote. Blair used "hand-written" pledges and implied that the Good Friday Agreement 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 May 22, 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 its seats in the power-sharing Executive.

The IRA did not begin decommissioning until October 23, 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.

Professor Paul Dixon is an Honorary Visiting Fellow at Birkbeck College, University of London and author of the forthcoming Performing The Northern Ireland Peace Process: In Defence Of Politics (Palgrave, 2018)

Belfast Telegraph