The Chilcot Inquiry is providing further evidence that Tony Blair misled the British public in the run up to the war in Iraq in 2003. Five years earlier he less famously deceived the people of Northern Ireland into believing that paramilitary prisoners wouldn’t be released and Sinn Fein wouldn’t be able to enter government until the IRA had decommissioned its arms. On the basis of this deception, Northern Ireland’s Catholics and a bare majority of Protestants ‘consented’ to the Good Friday Agreement.
In the wake of the referendum Blair retreated from his pledges: the first paramilitary prisoners were released in September 1998 and, in December 1999, Sinn Fein took its seats in government. The IRA continued with its activities – killings, beatings, targeting, spying, recruiting, gun-running, robbing banks – until July 2005. The government argued that an ‘imperfect peace’ was better than no peace at all.
In his book Great Hatred, Little Room, Jonathan Powell, Blair’s chief of staff, acknowledges that the Good Friday Agreement was ‘creatively ambiguous’: republicans could be told that decommissioning wasn’t required while unionists were reassured it was an essential part of the deal. This ambiguity was, not unreasonably, thought to be necessary if an accommodation was to be achieved between the polarised positions of unionists and republicans, and avoid the IRA’s return to violence. Blair gave David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist Party leader, a ‘side letter’ which appeared to suggest that decommissioning would begin a couple of months after the referendum. But the letter wasn’t part of the Agreement and left open to interpretation whether decommissioning was actually required, rather than simply desirable.
During the referendum campaign the IRA’s infamous ‘Balcombe Street gang’ was released to boost republican support for the Agreement. This had a disastrous impact on unionist voters. Blair worked frantically to win over unionist support for the Agreement. Two days before the vote he issued five handwritten, personal pledges to the people of Northern Ireland. According to Alastair Campbell’s diaries, ‘TB was not totally sure about it, and said the wordings had to be very, very careful.’ Among Blair’s promises were: ‘Those who use or threaten violence excluded from the government of Northern Ireland’ and ‘Prisoners kept in unless violence is given up for good.’
On the morning of the referendum Blair had an article published in the nationalist Irish News and unionist Belfast Newsletter which suggested that his demands from the IRA went beyond ‘just’ decommissioning:
Representatives of parties intimately linked to paramilitary groups can only be in a future Northern Ireland government if it is clear that there will be no more violence and the threat of violence has gone. That doesn’t just mean decommissioning but all bombing, killings, beatings, and an end to targeting, recruiting, and all the structures of terrorism.
The deception worked: the referendum passed with 71 per cent of the vote. Opinion polls suggested that a majority of both ‘Protestants’ and ‘Catholics’ thought that decommissioning would have to take place before IRA prisoners were released or Sinn Fein entered government.
The Agreement was signed on 10 April 1998. On 22 April, Blair agreed with the leader of the opposition, William Hague, that ‘no member of the new Assembly will be appointed a minister until any paramilitary associates that he may have had have engaged in substantial decommissioning.’ Two weeks later, Blair said:
What is essential is that any agreement must be signed up to in full, as we said, and the answer to his question is yes of course it is the case that, both in respect of taking seats in the government of Northern Ireland and in respect of the early release of prisoners, the only organisations that qualify for that are organisations that have given up violence and given it up for good.
The British prime minister compounded the deception by continuing to act as if it had never taken place. His government’s failure to mitigate or make amends for the effect of the deception undermined Northern Ireland’s moderate parties. Just a month after the referendum, Trimble’s UUP suffered a crashing defeat which almost sank pro-Agreement unionism. Even so, as late as November 2003 Blair expected Trimble to beat Ian Paisley in an election that saw Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party emerge as the dominant party within unionism. Sinn Fein similarly went on to eclipse the SDLP.
In a recent interview, Blair argued that the emergence of political parties in Iraq that cross the sectarian divide is paving the way for a more sustainable peace. In Northern Ireland, the most sectarian parties are now triumphant and devolution is precarious.