Belfast Telegraph

Philip Orr: Was the 1998 Good Friday Agreement secretly planned by the Government six years earlier?

Newly released state papers reveal that a clandestine branch of the Northern Ireland Office, the Talks Process Unit, effectively had the deal in embryo as far back as 1992, writes Philip Orr

David Trimble, John Hume and U2’s Bono celebrate the 1998 Agreement together
David Trimble, John Hume and U2’s Bono celebrate the 1998 Agreement together

At first glance, state papers from the first half of the 1990s, which were released in Dublin, London and Belfast, show little evidence that the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement was just a few years away.

Inclusive, multi-party talks are deemed impossible. There is fury from the British Government at the visa granted to Gerry Adams for a speaking tour of the USA. There is British hostility to President Bill Clinton's wish to appoint a peace envoy.

There is absolute reluctance by Peter Brooke, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, to respond to enquiring letters from Martin McGuinness. And there is the rancorous, endless Anglo-Irish issue of the "hard border", whether in the shape of closed roads in Fermanagh or vexed policing of Carlingford Lough.

Yet papers belonging to the Talks Process Unit (TPU) in the Northern Ireland Office show plans emerging throughout the violent year of 1992 that already foreshadow the shape of the Agreement arrived at six years later.

In April 1991 inter-party talks had begun, facilitated by Mr Brooke, in an attempt to reintroduce devolved government, woo alienated unionism and weave north-south and east-west strands into a hoped-for deal.

Memos and correspondence within the TPU reveal Civil Service discussions about elections to a possible new Assembly, the electoral methodology to be used and constituency boundary reforms. There is discussion of a constitutional Bill which "might include arrangements for a new, all-Ireland body".

 

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There is debate about the use of referenda - one to occur in the Irish Republic, offering dissolution of articles two and three of the constitution, and one held in Northern Ireland to seek assent for an overall agreement.

The idea of holding the referenda on the same day is proposed.

By October 1992 concern is expressed to the TPU by Government officials in London about Scottish reactions to a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland.

The TPU is counselled to make a "commitment to discuss" the matter with the Scottish Office to ensure that, "we do not affect their interest" and enable preparation for a "defence briefing" against Scottish devolution.

Further correspondence refers to the difficulty of justifying a referendum in Northern Ireland when a "wider UK referendum is withheld on Maastricht".

The Maastricht Agreement in February 1992 had consolidated the internal structure of the European Union, but a group of Tory MPs known as the "Maastricht rebels" had opposed the Conservative Government's implementation of the treaty.

The TPU also discusses the prospect of "radical change in the machinery of government" if direct rule is superseded.

Officials flag up the possibility of a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland and debate whether a "summit-cum-signing ceremony might seal the deal".

They also note a possible "damage hiatus" between conclusion of an agreement and its implementation, in which case the British Government would have to engage in "fire-fighting".

Officials from the TPU's "presentation and implementation group" suggest that lessons should be learned from the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985: the hostility that it caused among unionists bedevilled the new talks and would play a role in their downfall in November.

One memo warns of a repeat of the protests against the Anglo-Irish Agreement should the new agreement "fall on an unsuspecting public", who would be asked to vote without being properly informed.

Back in 1985, the writer warns, "opinion was not shaped in advance". He makes the suggestion that "this time, we need to do some more positive marketing, perhaps through a professional marketing company".

An opposing argument is spelt out, reminding colleagues that "packaging" would never have helped to sell the Anglo-Irish Agreement.

So, a discussion occurs about how to win over local public opinion, civic leaders, opinion-formers and captains of industry - a "letter box-drop to all householders with heads of agreement" could, perhaps, be undertaken and a simple "child's guide to any agreement" could be considered as a useful tool, although, as one memo-writer warns, perhaps playfully, "an Irish-language version would be a bridge too far at this stage".

Discussion also touches on whether the Royal Coat of Arms printed on the final command paper presented to Parliament would be inappropriate, given nationalist sensitivities.

The TPU need not have fretted over such matters; the talks initiated by Brooke broke up in November.

But it is possible to see them as significant, though not just for the three-stranded approach, which would be central to future advances towards local governance.

Arguably, a host of other ideas for structure and strategy were mooted back then by the TPU and merely rebooted six years later, when the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement was constructed and offered to voters for their assent.

Philip Orr is an historian and writer

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