The Northern Ireland Question. The peace process and the Belfast Agreement

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Book Reviews, Issue 4 (Jul/Aug 2009), Reviews, Troubles in Northern Ireland, Volume 17

1The Northern Ireland Question. The peace process and the Belfast Agreement
Brian Barton and Patrick J. Roche (eds)
(Palgrave MacMillan, £55)
ISBN 9780230203808

On 23 May 1998 at the King’s Hall, Belfast, as the counting of votes in the referendum on the Belfast Agreement was coming to a conclusion, a small group of campaign workers pushed its way through the excited crowds towards the exit. At its centre was the unmistakeable figure of the Reverend Doctor Ian Paisley, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party and for four decades the scourge of those unionists who would compromise with Irish nationalism. With the Agreement about to be endorsed by the electorate, some of the crowd began jeering the DUP group, taunting Ian Paisley over his opposition to the settlement.
The incident is recalled by Sydney Elliott in the opening paragraph of his essay on the electoral dynamics of the Belfast Agreement. He writes that Paisley left the King’s Hall ‘to the accompaniment of chants of “dinosaur, dinosaur, dinosaur” from the supporters of the newer unionist parties’. As a reporter in the count centre that day I saw some of the DUP group respond by pointing their hands in a gun-like fashion at their tormentors, many of whom were associated with the loyalist paramilitaries.
In explaining Ian Paisley’s political journey from the King’s Hall in May 1998 to March 2007 when he agreed to enter government with Sinn Féin the essays in this volume are revealing and insightful. The strength of this collection lies in its analysis of unionist politics before and after the Agreement, in part, perhaps, because some of the contributors were participants in the events described. Those chapters devoted to the evolution of nationalist policy are fewer in number and in some respects weaker in content.
Graham Gudgin, who contributes the chapter ‘Implementing Devolved Government 1998–2002’, was an economic adviser to First Minister David Trimble (could he be one of two advisers who ‘also had PhD’s’?). His essay takes the reader inside that first attempt at power-sharing under the Agreement, but very much from the Ulster Unionist perspective. Absent is any authoritative insight into the SDLP or Sinn Féin strategy within that administration, although he offers several criticisms of the nationalist approach to power-sharing. Gudgin argues that from the outset unionist support for the Agreement was fragile, noting that ‘in the 1998 Assembly elections . . . anti-Agreement candidates secured 55 per cent of the unionist vote’. He rejects the contention that David Trimble failed to ‘sell’ the Agreement and accuses the SDLP of ‘a curious lack of empathy with Trimble’s difficulties’.
One serious impediment was ‘the indifferent state of relations within the Executive between the First and Deputy First Ministers’. Contributing to that, he contends, was the nationalist and republican ‘self-view as oppressed people’. He cites claims by both the SDLP’s Seamus Mallon and Martin McGuinness of Sinn Féin that they came from disadvantaged backgrounds. Bizarrely, he observes that neither ‘politician mentioned the contribution of large family size to any lack of family prosperity’.
In a detailed account of the final negotiations leading to the Agreement, Thomas Hennessey tells us that ‘Trimble believed that he had secured all his primary demands . . . Yet the perception grew that, somehow, unionists had lost’. Three factors, he argues, fed this belief: the entry of Sinn Féin into government without decommissioning; the release of paramilitary prisoners; and the commission on policing.
As Christopher Farrington comments in the chapter ‘Unionism and the Belfast Agreement’, the strains within unionism resulted not from disputes on the key constitutional issues, such as power-sharing or relations with the Republic, but ‘those relating to the process of conflict resolution or transformation’. He is also doubtful that Trimble could have done more to sell the Agreement.
The erosion of support for Trimble among unionist voters is dealt with comprehensively in the chapter by Sydney Elliot, already mentioned. He too identifies this as a trend that came early in the post-Agreement period, but also sees a similar trend on the nationalist side as the SDLP was eclipsed by Sinn Féin, concluding that ‘the main changes within the unionist and nationalist blocks occurred between 1998 and 2003’. The result was that after 2003 the ‘focus of attention by the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland governments had moved to seeking a deal with DUP and Sinn Féin at its core’. Foot-dragging by Republicans on arms decommissioning clearly weakened Trimble, as did the British willingness to accommodate Sinn Féin. According to Elliot, this policy was partly ‘due to the Labour government approach, which held that Protestants had nowhere else to go’.
As regards the future of the Assembly and the Executive, Elliot is a realist: ‘The glue holding it together is mainly the hunger for local political power exuded by DUP and Sinn Fein’. Austen Morgan, in a sometimes highly technical essay on legal aspects of the Agreement, puts it more bluntly. ‘These two extreme parties [the DUP and Sinn Féin] are prepared to cooperate, so that each can get resources for its own community.’ The DUP’s claim to have re-written the Belfast Agreement at the subsequent St Andrews negotiations is dismissed by Morgan. ‘The British–Irish Agreement signed by Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern on 10 April 1998 is intact.’
In the event, Paisley entered government arguing that the settlement with nationalism secured rather than undermined the union. But in the view of Cillian McGrattan the Belfast Agreement is the result of a ‘nationalist policy direction [that] proceeds on a cumulative path towards the end goal of gradual reunification’. In ‘Northern Nationalism and the Belfast Agreement’, McGrattan traces the ‘greening’ of the SDLP back to the early 1970s and argues that ‘the underlying thrust of the Anglo-Irish Agreement was to provide an alternative route to achieving the nationalist end goals as distinct from facilitating compromise with the unionist community’. John Hume’s achievement, McGrattan would seem to suggest, was to bring Sinn Féin into the process through the Hume–Adams talks. As an illustration of the political distance travelled by Republicans, he quotes from a Sinn Féin policy document of the late 1980s: ‘Sinn Féin is totally opposed to a power-sharing Stormont assembly and states that there cannot be a partitionist solution. Stormont is not a stepping-stone to Irish unity.’
The role of successive Irish governments is not ignored by the editors, but the chapter entitled ‘The Belfast Agreement and Southern Irish Politics’ is disappointing. Catherine O’Donnell relies on policy developed by Éamonn de Valera to account for Fianna Fáil’s attitude to partition but fails to mention the initiatives taken by his successors, Seán Lemass and Jack Lynch, to shape a new approach to the North. She appears to suggest that Fianna Fáil only fully endorsed the principle of unity by consent in the late 1990s. Yet in his autobiography, former Taoiseach Garret Fitzgerald recalls that ‘Jack Lynch edged Fianna Fáil gradually towards the same stance [no reunification without consent] so that when the Sunningdale agreement, incorporating this principle, was signed by December 1973 he was able to get his party to accept it’. Nevertheless, her general contention of a ‘lack of cross-party agreement on Northern Ireland’ prior to the peace process is not without foundation. More contentious will be O’Donnell’s assertion that there has been an ‘absence of progression within southern nationalist thought in relation to unionism’. It is a remarkable claim, given the changes she herself charts, and is based on nothing more than a desire in the Republic for closer cooperation between North and South, and an aspiration to entice unionists into a united Ireland ‘at some point in the future’.
Other chapters deal with the historical background to the Agreement and the role of Republican and Loyalist paramilitaries. There is a particularly good survey of American involvement. In ‘The United States and the Peace Process’ Adrian Guelke reminds us that American engagement in Northern Ireland did not begin or end with Bill Clinton. He traces US influence back to President Jimmy Carter’s statement in 1977 in support of Irish unity. The impact of Irish Republican groups operating in the US is recognised, as are the efforts of successive Irish governments to marginalise their influence. But could it be argued that groups like Noraid were the catalyst for the creation of an ‘official’ Irish lobby in Washington? Guelke might usefully have explored this thesis.
The book concludes with two essays presenting the case for and against the Agreement, both from a unionist perspective. Paul Bew has provided an elegantly written defence of the 1998 settlement, the ultimate triumph of which he believes has been its capacity to provide a mechanism for the DUP to enter government with Sinn Féin. Dennis Kennedy presents the case against, bristling with indignation that Northern Ireland is not treated like any other part of the United Kingdom and bemoaning the failure of northern nationalists to ‘make the best’ of their situation. We are also informed incorrectly that Lemass made his landmark visit to Stormont to meet Terence O’Neill in 1955 when it fact it was 1965. Yet who could disagree with his assessment that ‘the Belfast Agreement is, at best, a holding document, an acknowledgement that the constitutional issue remains unresolved’?
In assembling this collection of essays Brian Barton and Paddy Roche have made an important contribution to the still limited body of work devoted to the Belfast Agreement. It is also the latest in a series of publications they have jointly edited on what they term ‘the Northern Ireland Question’. Although hampered by the obvious lack of access to what will remain for many years secret government documents, the authors have made good use of the available material. Interviews with some of the principal players, published documents, media reports, political memoirs and the personal recollections of some of the contributors provide the main sources. Strikingly, several chapters quote extensively from accounts of the peace process written by journalists who spent years reporting the slow-moving negotiations, evidence that journalism can indeed be the ‘first draft of history’.
Accounts of the process from the inside are few. Two feature again and again in these essays: Great hatred, little room: making peace in Northern Ireland by Jonathan Powell, who was Tony Blair’s adviser on Northern Ireland, and the published diaries of Alistair Campbell, Blair’s former press secretary. One can only wish that officials on the Irish government side might give us their accounts of these historic events. If we are to understand how the Agreement came about and how Ian Paisley ended his political career as First Minister in a devolved power-sharing executive with Sinn Féin we will need all the help we can get. HI

Bryan Dobson is the presenter of the Six-One Television News on RTÉ1.

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