John Bull’s Paddy

Published in Features, Features, Issue 3 (May/Jun 2005), Volume 13

John Bull’s Paddy 1MC: Tell me about your family connections with Ireland.

PM: My mother’s family are Roches from County Cork, who have lived there since the middle of the thirteenth century. They are an Anglo-Irish family who always resided there—they weren’t absentees. I was brought up with a fairly ‘green’ understanding of the relationships between the people of Ireland and the British, in particular a very thorough understanding of how the Black and Tans behaved and of how some of the Irish behaved to each other. I had a fairly clear notion of the historical overlay which I realised flavoured the contemporary approach which people adopted towards politics, North and South. I think that was the biggest single asset that my background gave me. I understood the emotionalism and the way in which individuals could draw upon episodes of history in a thoroughly selective way. It induced in me a determination to do my best to get people looking forwards rather than backwards. I think that if I had been bred from stiff Wealden clay in the County of Kent, where I live, I would have found that emotionalism and selective historical recall very difficult to understand; as it was, I found it very natural.

MC: What sort of appreciation did you have for the detail and nuances of Irish history and how did this shape your impressions of Northern Ireland prior to your appointment in 1992?

PM: I don’t think that any person who is basically English in experience or upbringing is ever able to say that he knows enough about the Irish character or the various Irish characters. My background, however, was a help rather than a hindrance. It didn’t play historically or politically for me as Protestants or Unionists in the North expected a family like my mother’s to be more republican than the real thing because we got on well with our Catholic neighbours and had always lived in County Cork. Whereas Catholics expected me to have it all stitched up with the Prods because we were an Ascendancy family. As it didn’t play politically for me I was mistrusted on all sides, which was quite a good place to be. My successor, Mo Mowlam, of whom I am very fond and whom I admire considerably, had the handicap of being known to be—with a small ‘r’—republican in her sympathies, as indeed the Labour Party was historically. Whilst the Labour Party changed its position on the border before 1997, she made no secret of the fact that she favoured a politically united island of Ireland, which I think was an unfortunate background for anyone taking on the job. It was better to be equally mistrusted by both sides than violently mistrusted by one.

MC: Before 1992 did you have much interest in the affairs and personalities of Northern Ireland?

PM: For nine years I was a law officer, four as solicitor-general and five as attorney-general, and I made a point of looking after the interests of the Northern Irish judiciary because I thought that they were behaving heroically in conditions of great danger. A number of them were murdered, and they were curiously neglected by the then lord chancellor, Lord Halisham, curiously because he had an Ulster background and I would have expected him to be more concerned about these issues. I tried to rectify this and was responsible for getting the high court judges knighthoods like their English counterparts, which strangely enough they didn’t have—they were only knighted when they went to the court of appeal. I researched it periodically over the course of three years and the explanation was that the matter had been fully gone into in 1822 and that it had been rejected, on the basis that if high court judges were given knighthoods in Ireland it would give their wives precedence at gatherings at Dublin Castle over the wives of other functionaries. This apparently wouldn’t do! But comparing the relaxed lifestyle of a chancery judge in London with that of a high court judge in Northern Ireland returning to a fortress and feeling permanently under threat, I think that there was every case for rectifying this small matter of discrimination. I thought it was very important as a law officer to show that we were alive to their problems and to do our best to support them. Consequently I got to know Northern Ireland quite well.

MC: It is generally recognised that the Northern Ireland portfolio was one that you craved, though during the Thatcher years it was likened to a posting on the Russian front. Why did you want it?

PM: Quite wrongly likened in that respect. However, ‘craved’ might be putting it too strongly. I thought that my predecessor, Peter Brooke, a friend of mine, was doing an extremely good job. He had brought the parties together to agree ground rules for preliminary talks—the ‘talks about talks’ stage—with great skill and patience. It never occurred to me to canvass for his job. But as I had been visiting Northern Ireland for quite some time and because I have a feeling for things Irish, due to my background, word got about and when asked, as I often was, if I would like to be secretary of state, I said I would, though I insisted that as the job was not available I was not interested. However, word spread that I had canvassed for it, even though I never did. On the other hand, I was extremely pleased to be asked to do it.

MC: When you surveyed the landscape on arriving in Northern Ireland, how did you think that your tenure might be different from that of your predecessor?  

PM: I thought that Peter Brooke had made considerable progress in getting the constitutional parties round a table, really for the first time, seriously, since Sunningdale in 1973. I was in a very fortunate position as the groundwork had been done in a way that was better than anything I could have achieved. I took on the talks within the first week, though, at the time, I thought that it was very hard on Peter as I’m sure he looked forward to progressing with what he had planned.  So with these advantages it was up to me to make something of it, which I like to think I did. The talks lasted from the end of April until November 1992, when they were effectively brought to an end, unfortunately, by the Irish government, who weren’t prepared to make a commitment, even a contingent commitment, to seek the repeal of Article 3 of the Irish constitution. There was a general election in the Republic and they were a coalition government and weren’t prepared to make that step.  The Ulster Unionists and the DUP were not willing to accept that. James Molyneaux showed considerable courage in taking his party’s delegation down to Dublin, the first time since partition, which was a very brave thing to do, though it exposed him to criticism from the DUP.

Brian Faulkner—‘got too far ahead of his troops [on Sunningdale] and was subsequently brought down’. (BBC Hulton Picture Library)

Brian Faulkner—‘got too far ahead of his troops [on Sunningdale] and was subsequently brought down’. (BBC Hulton Picture Library)

MC: What were your views of previous initiatives such as Sunningdale and the Anglo-Irish Agreement?

PM: Sunningdale was a very different animal from the Belfast Agreement. It provided for joint jurisdiction for both governments over matters in Northern Ireland. That was something that was perfectly clear to me would not work. It was signed by Brian Faulkner, on behalf of the Ulster Unionists, who got too far ahead of his troops and was subsequently brought down. Direct rule immediately followed. I have always taken the view that there was no prospect of getting consensus if a component of any deal or agreement was shared jurisdiction. Cooperation or the right to be consulted is one thing, cross-border entities similarly, which were all very desirable and sensible steps, but actually giving lawful jurisdiction to the Irish government over Northern Ireland should never have been agreed and that was the distinction between Sunningdale and what we were trying to achieve.
The Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 gave the Irish the right to be consulted. The harm flowed from the fact that it was secretly negotiated. Mrs Thatcher was charmed by Garrett Fitzgerald—whom she liked very much—and he persuaded her that this was the right thing to do. Very largely because of its secrecy and the way it was sprung on the Ulster Unionists it was denounced. Secretary of State Douglas Hurd was moved shortly before the announcement and his replacement, Tom King, carried the can for it and was nearly lynched on the streets of Belfast. I am very critical, in retrospect, of how it was negotiated in secret, because it prevented successive secretaries of state, me in particular, from saying ‘why on earth don’t you trust me, I’m not going to sell you down the river’. The usual reply was ‘all very well for you to say that, we haven’t trusted anyone since 1985’.  It took a long time to overcome that, if I ever did.

MC: What was your strategy for dealing with terrorism in 1992?  

PM: I was aware from the beginning that there could be no purely military solution to the problem. It was necessary to have a strong response to terrorism, but it was essential to have a political objective so you could hold out political hope. So long as we upheld the rule of law we were never going to defeat terrorism by military means alone. That is an important qualification. It would have been quite wrong to give untrammelled powers to the police and the military; our purpose in governing Northern Ireland was to uphold the rule of law, starting with the premise that in a democracy the majority should determine what the political status of Northern Ireland should be. People are entitled to live under the rule of law, compared with the unlawful activities of paramilitaries, on either side. If we had descended to the levels of the executive in 1920 with the Black and Tans, matching hideous outrage with hideous outrage, we would have lost our moral foundation completely. As attorney-general I had been greatly concerned to ensure that the British government acted in a lawful way in all circumstances and I wasn’t going to change when I assumed executive power in Northern Ireland.

‘The harm flowed from the fact that [the Anglo-Irish Agreement] was secretly negotiated. Mrs Thatcher was charmed by Garrett Fitzgerald—whom she liked very much—and he persuaded her that this was the right thing to do.’ (Pacemaker Press)

‘The harm flowed from the fact that [the Anglo-Irish Agreement] was secretly negotiated. Mrs Thatcher was charmed by Garrett Fitzgerald—whom she liked very much—and he persuaded her that this was the right thing to do.’ (Pacemaker Press)

MC: With atrocities raging during the early 1990s, such as the bombs at Warrington and the Shankill Road, why did the British government keep the ‘back channel’ open to the IRA?

PM: The ‘back channel’ was reopened by my predecessor, Peter Brooke, in 1990, and a good thing it was, not to enable negotiation to take place between the British government and the IRA (we had undertaken not to do that so long as they continued to use violence), but in order that we could explain our position and hear what they wanted to say. Indeed, in 1993 we received the message beginning with the words: ‘The conflict is over. We need your advice as to how to bring it to a close.’ It would have been a very serious mistake if there had been no one at the end of the telephone to receive it. It was kept secret, but when it was leaked it led to political difficulty.

MC: How helpful was John Hume in the search for peace in Northern Ireland?

PM: His contribution was very great. He persuaded Nationalists that it was no good simply isolating themselves from the affairs of Northern Ireland, believing that it was an invalid, unlawful, statelet. What they had to do was to accept the principle of consent and engage with the government to make Northern Ireland a better place without compromising their overall objective to remove the border. Previously there had been a total isolation of Catholics from the affairs of Northern Ireland. Hume persuaded them that the right course was to improve the circumstances for Catholics and others within Northern Ireland. The tragic thing was that Stormont had reacted against the Civil Rights movement in terms of law and order only and didn’t see it as the beginning of a desire to make Northern Ireland a better place, a basis upon which they could negotiate. Instead they sought to put it down.

MC: The much-quoted line from the Downing Street Declaration that Britain has ‘no selfish strategic or economic interest’ in Northern Ireland offended many Unionists. However, was this simply a statement of fact?

PM: This statement was first made by Peter Brooke in 1990 and one that I reiterated at Coleraine in 1992. We needed to say that Northern Ireland is not a colony. For example, Londonderry no longer had any strategic interest, and it was necessary to say this and to keep saying it because it countered the belief, widely held in America and by many people in Northern Ireland, that we wanted to stay there for our own reasons. If the day comes when the people of Northern Ireland reverse the result of the 1973 border poll and wish to unite with the Irish Republic then the British government will facilitate this and take steps to give effect to the will of the people.

MC: Could you discuss the thought-process behind the 1995 Framework Documents?

PM: The Framework Documents were designed to break a loss of momentum in the process and to set out, as best the two governments could, a solution that would have a good chance of being acceptable. We took the initiative as there was a hiatus and we worked long and hard, though it didn’t get universal approval. It was another step in the process and a fairly turbulent one. The Framework Documents were leaked and given highly partial and tendentious exposure in The Times. It was calculated to cause the maximum anxiety to Unionists, which indeed it achieved.

MC: What was your reaction in August 1995 to the election of David Trimble as Ulster Unionist leader?

PM: I wished him well but came to recognise that he had very limited room for manoeuvre within his own party because every one of his MPs voted against him. Even if he had wished to show flexibility, he would have been constrained by his colleagues in the House of Commons, who would have pointed at the government’s diminishing and tiny majority and urged him not to make any concessions from the true faith. This constraint became apparent on a number of occasions. Following the 1997 general election there was a sea-change as he had a government that was republican in sympathies—small ‘r’—with a huge majority so he had to negotiate, and he had the courage and ability to do that very successfully, I thought.

‘If the day comes when the people of Northern Ireland reverse the result of the 1973 border poll and wish to unite with the Irish Republic then the British government will facilitate this and take steps to give effect to the will of the people.’ (An Phoblacht)

‘If the day comes when the people of Northern Ireland reverse the result of the 1973 border poll and wish to unite with the Irish Republic then the British government will facilitate this and take steps to give effect to the will of the people.’ (An Phoblacht)

MC: When David Trimble emerged as Ulster Unionist leader in 1995, on the back of the Drumcree dispute, did you see him as a man you could do business with?

PM: I thought that it was a very disappointing performance dancing something like ‘strip-the-willow’ with Dr Paisley. But everyone develops and, in those days, David Trimble demonstrated a short fuse. It was very apparent that he was not able, for one reason or another, to show much flexibility and he seemed to be guarding his flank against the DUP. I didn’t have a particularly good relationship with him until towards the end of my time, when it did get much better. I think that we came to suspect each other less and respect each other more. Latterly, he did show considerable courage and vision in ultimately agreeing to Senator Mitchell taking the chair at the talks, which was a risk he took and a necessary one for which he deserves a lot of credit.

MC: Did the cultural traditions of Northern Ireland seem peculiar to you?

PM: Drumcree was dreadful and not the most glorious episode in my time. The marching season, so frequently provocative, filled me with dismay. I should have introduced sooner the independent Parades Commission to defuse matters. On the other hand, one must remember that the Orange Order have marched for a very long time and some very respectable people have taken part. I was the first secretary of state to attend an Orange meeting at Comber in August 1994. It was very educative. I did have a look to see if I could get out of the back window if I had to, but they treated me very politely. I was very interested to see and impressed by the way in which their particular brand of religion meant a great deal to them. You could tell it from the speeches they made and the way they talked. I was presented with a very handsome present by the chaplain, which was a facsimile edition of Tyndall’s Bible in soft leather binding, which was a remarkable gift. It was important that I should have made this visit.

MC: Your insistence in Washington that total decommissioning occur before Sinn Fein’s entry to all-party talks was gradually diluted. Was this ambitious aspiration ever possible?

PM: At the time of receiving the IRA message in 1993 there was considerable scepticism. Was this a dupe? Why did they continue to keep on carrying out acts of violence if they were sincere about peace? The response, which is described as ‘Washington III’, was the most the cabinet would permit at that time and, incidentally, it was seen as an entirely reasonable one by the American administration. However, it was softened in the light of negotiations within Northern Ireland, though not negotiations with the IRA. With hindsight it was possibly an unrealistic strategy to begin with, or maybe it was unrealistic to suppose that there would ever be any substantial decommissioning, for there has hardly been any so far.

MC: What recommended George Mitchell as a suitable arbitrator of the talks?

PM: We brought Senator Mitchell in because of his reputation in the United States as Senate majority leader, along with General de Chastelain and Harri Holkeri, to advise on the issue of decommissioning.  He produced a report, which was balanced and fair, and he found that all sides really wanted to see decommissioning and it was a question of how it was to be brought about. It was felt that there might be a greater chance of progress if subsequent talks could be reconvened and if he and his colleagues were in the chair. There would be less suspicion than if a British minister was in the chair and ultimately everybody in Ireland carries baggage. It was the lack of baggage which was seen to be attractive, and so it proved, as he did extremely well and I have a very high regard for him.

MC: By 1997 would you consider that relations between both governments were much better than when you first started in 1992?

PM: The central feature of relations in the early 1990s was that Albert Reynolds was a personal friend of John Major. Both had served together in Europe as finance ministers and each knew that the other wouldn’t sell him short. I made my way with Dick Spring and slowly I developed a good relationship with him. Both our families came from England, mine during the thirteenth century and his in the sixteenth. He once said that things might have been better if both our families had stayed at home! Relations did progress slowly, but after 1997 the Irish got on better with the new British government once they were prepared to let Sinn Féin into talks without any pre-delivered acts of decommissioning. Ahern and Blair have a close relationship and seem to work very well together.

MC: Are you writing your memoirs?

PM: No. It would cause a lot of damage if I said everything that would be interesting, and if I didn’t it would be denounced as far too bland.

Mark Coalter is a writer and researcher based in London.

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