Belfast Telegraph

Graham Spencer: Close relationship between Blair and Ahern meant that they succeeded in delivering peace in Northern Ireland where their predecessors failed

This time it's personal, writes Graham Spencer.

Tony Blair (left) and Bertie Ahern sign the peace agreement on Good Friday, April 1998
Tony Blair (left) and Bertie Ahern sign the peace agreement on Good Friday, April 1998

If there is one thing that it is hard to dispute when it comes to the role of the British and Irish governments throughout the peace process, it is that they were relentless in their pursuit of seeking agreement.

This effort notably intensified in the Ahern-Blair years and was sustained by informal and formal lines of contact and negotiation that resulted in the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.

Of course, many important informal and formal arrangements that laid the ground for the peace process had been put in place well before the Ahern-Blair period and the Reynolds-Major period was vital.

Although it would be too simplistic to claim that the British favoured formal interactions compared to the Irish, what comes across from many of the top Irish officials interviewed in my new, two-volume series of interviews, Inside Accounts: The Irish Government and Peace in Northern Ireland, is that inter-personal relations were prioritised by the Irish as the key means by which to build confidence and respect and so draw the political parties closer towards agreement.

The cultivation of trust proved important for assessing the intentions of the parties and the likelihood of movement and Ahern sought to deepen trust at every opportunity.

Though Jonathan Powell did much informal work on the British side, the scale of the British political machine made it much harder to build the intimacy with participants than was the case for the Irish.

Blair did, to some extent, address this by putting control in the hands of three or four key individuals, effectively circumventing the bureaucratic involvement of the diplomatic service, the Northern Ireland Office and military and intelligence advisors. His constant availability to the parties also meant that cross-purposes could be eliminated from engagement as much as possible.

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This had its disadvantages, too, however. As Seamus Mallon recalled in his memoir, the sight of Sinn Fein going in and out of Downing Street while he and others were working to make power-sharing happen back in Belfast gave the impression that Sinn Fein were the authoritative voice of nationalism and undermined the effectiveness of moderate politics.

Where the roots of the peace process lay is a matter of contention. While some would argue the origins lay in the meeting between Willie Whitelaw and IRA leaders in London in 1972, others might consider Sunningdale to be the start. For others still, the origins range from the hunger strikes, to the Anglo-Irish Agreement, to Enniskillen, to Hume-Adams, or the Brooke talks.

All these moments were part of the journey towards peace and all can be seen as more or less important for charting the direction of travel. But, without doubt, the final push for moving into the endgame came about once Blair and Ahern were elected in 1997.

For the Irish, involvement with the peace process relied heavily on building and sustaining contacts established "on the ground". Attempts to bring about peace from Sunningdale tell a sporadic story of creativity, application and imagination. Building an infrastructure that would support peace and so facilitate it was art as much as it was politics.

Margaret Thatcher's suggestion, in the Anglo-Irish Agreement talks, that there should be two borders, with a five-mile "no-man's-land" in between (quickly and, perhaps, unwisely rejected by the Irish), strangely comes into view again as Boris Johnson proposes a two-border solution to the Brexit dilemma.

Irish deconstruction of the Widgery Report, paragraph by paragraph, and re-evaluation of each of Widgery's claims in the light of fresh evidence provided the momentum and pressure for a new Bloody Sunday inquiry.

Consideration of getting all weapons from all military groups melted down and used to create a huge artwork of reconciliation that was declined, because of perceived moral symmetry between the IRA and state forces, indicates that even weaponry was seen as a basis for a positive message about the future.

Rev Ian Paisley, at the end of his first one-to-one meeting with Ahern, said he would go out to meet the Press and stand alongside the Irish flag. But when the picture appeared in the Press the following day, he would claim it was a mistake.

The time of Good Friday was a moment in history when the governments were considering a range of options and initiatives for getting the parties to finally accept a deal. This involved a degree of constructive ambiguity, which, although advantageous for some, was disadvantageous for others.

For unionists, the peace process was a constant stream of compromises, with little to show for it.

No wonder that, for unionists, change was largely perceived as loss, which at the same time helped nationalist and republican constituencies to value the process.

However, as became clear, once the ambiguity of the process became a hindrance and clarity was required, the moderate SDLP and UUP started to lose ground, before both were then destroyed by decommissioning and outmanoeuvred by the harder positions of Sinn Fein and the DUP. This development reflected the desire for certainty, but also eliminated the ambiguity of new possibilities and voices as a result. It is important to remember that both Sinn Fein and the DUP did little to bring about the Good Friday Agreement.

One of the things I hope the interviews of the period will do is encourage writers to use the testimonies for a play, or television drama, about the lead-up to the Good Friday Agreement. I hope that the immediacy of the testimonies show the fears, tensions, dynamics, breakdowns and breakthroughs that came to define a major historical period.

But one cannot help asking, when reading the interviews, where the optimism and inspiration of Good Friday has gone? On this, I wonder about the ability and involvement of British and Irish officials and leaders dealing with Northern Ireland today. It doesn't paint a complimentary picture.

One of the main lessons of the peace process is the need for constant attention and engagement with the protagonists and this should not be seen as something that loses urgency once an agreement is signed. Attention and engagement should be maintained for at least two generations, otherwise the mechanisms needed to deal with problems that threaten social and national stability become, at best, lethargic, or, worse, dangerously ineffective.

The current Brexit debacle has undermined the hard-won and long-developed co-operative spirit that influenced the journey towards the Good Friday Agreement.

The need for consensus seems to have now shifted backwards into the terrain of zero-sum exchanges between Leavers and Remainers, with each seeking to defeat the other, rather than working to find an agreed path through the debris.

The dangerous implications this has for the peace process should not be underestimated and both governments need to work to address the deteriorating situation with immediate effect.

The divisive political climate that is now developing can only stoke further sectarian tensions in Northern Ireland and, if not countered, will be to the detriment of all.

Above all, the interviews in Inside Accounts are a reminder of the need for constant vigilance by both British and Irish governments towards the peace process and what can happen when the roots of new possibilities are left to shrivel alongside well-established fears and prejudices.

Graham Spencer is Reader in Social and Political Conflict at the University of Portsmouth. His Inside Accounts: The Irish Government and Peace in Northern Ireland (Vols 1 and 2) is published by Manchester University Press

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