Last year’s Good Friday Agreement arose out of what had effectively become a stalemate in Northern Ireland. At one time the security forces had believed they could defeat the Provisional IRA, but the methods by which they sought to do so proved counter-productive. A police force drawn, for whatever reasons, from one side of the community only, and inevitably identifying with that side, could not command sufficient support, or even acceptance, on the other side to isolate and defeat a terrorist organisation like the Provisionals. And a British Army organised for warfare, and under constant attack from terrorists, could not provide the consistent, even-handed policing that would have secured and maintained the support of the section of the community from which the terrorists were drawn. This would have been difficult even had it been possible for a British government, concerned about the morale of its troops, to apply the strict discipline necessary to ensure that it operated in the same way as an impartial police force might have done.

By the mid-Eighties, the security forces were no longer under any illusion that they might defeat, rather than merely contain the IRA, and the IRA leadership had themselves begun to reach the similar conclusion that their attempt to force the British Government to withdraw from Northern Ireland was also condemned to failure. Indeed, the more politically aware among them were starting to realise that the possibility of achieving their more recent objective – of making their Party the principal voice of Northern Irish nationalism – was being blocked by the refusal of the great majority of nationalists there to support a party associated with violence. This political ambition had emerged following the success of several Sinn Fein candidates put forward for election in both parts of Ireland in support of the 1980-81 hunger strikes, which were perceived by nationalists of all hues as having been mishandled by the British Government.

Although it maintained its abstentionist stance so far as the Westminster Parliament was concerned, the IRA now allowed its political wing, Sinn Fein, to contest elections in both the South and North, a tactic that secured a considerable measure of success in the North, but not in the Republic. The rapid rise in the Sinn Fein vote to form one-third of the total nationalist vote made an eventual majority for nationalism in the North seem conceivable, and the IRA might then be emboldened to raise the level of violence to the point at which it provoked a civil war, endangering the security of the whole island.

This danger led the Government in which I was Taoiseach to abandon for the time being attempts to seek an agreement with the Unionists – then a somewhat illusory goal in any event given repeated Unionist rejections of moves towards a power-sharing arrangement in the North – and to seek an agreement instead with the British Government that would revive nationalist confidence in constitutional methods, and thus win back support from Sinn Fein, to the advantage of the SDLP.

Despite the failure of Margaret Thatcher’s Government to implement fully the security aspect of the resulting Anglo-Irish Agreement, political support for Sinn Fein fell in its wake from one-third to well below one-quarter of the nationalist vote in the North. And this in time led the IRA to rethink its ‘Armalite and ballot-box’ strategy, and then to the ceasefire of 1994.

Over a period of more than a decade, the Irish Government’s strategy had thus produced the desired result: a recognition by both the IRA and the security forces that a stalemate had been reached. Yet neither the Irish nor the British Government, or, indeed, the Ulster Unionists, were fully prepared for the situation that this created.

British politicians had at various times (1971, 1972, 1975, 1980 and 1992) entered into discussions of one kind or another with the IRA, or with Sinn Fein, even in the absence of any indication that the IRA were willing to end the violence. Irish Governments, on the other hand, had consistently refused to do so – and had sought without success to persuade the British to drop the practice. Irish Governments had sometimes feared that, as a result of such contacts, a British government might at some point be tempted to withdraw from the North, so creating an unsustainable security situation in the island as a whole.

The consistent position in Dublin was that any discussions with the IRA would have to be preceded by a handing-over of weapons, in other words, that there could be no negotiations with armed terrorists – and successive British Governments were well aware of this, as were the Unionists. In 1993, however, John Hume’s talks with Gerry Adams reached the point where an unconditional cessation of IRA violence became a real possibility and the Major Government was persuaded by Dublin to open the way for such a development by committing itself publicly to the Irish people’s right to self-determination, a right to be exercised separately in the two parts of the island. This was to be accompanied by an Irish statement of willingness to abandon the clauses of the Constitution interpreted as containing a claim on the territory of Northern Ireland.

After further indirect contacts between the British Government and Sinn Fein, the IRA announced a cessation of violence, a ceasefire that might become permanent provided agreement could be reached on the future government of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom. No reference was made, however, to a hand-over of arms. This posed an unexpected problem for the two Governments and for the Unionists. Since that time, successive Irish Governments, concerned not to let slip an opportunity to create a stable polity in the North, linked economically to the South but remaining part of the UK until and unless a majority of its population decided otherwise, have been prepared to postpone applying their long-established precondition of the handing over of arms.

British Governments, perhaps taken aback by this modification of Dublin’s stance, found it more difficult to accept Sinn Fein participation in negotiations in advance of any disposal of weapons. The Major Government eventually made a concession on the issue, but only after the Canary Wharf bomb – and this sent quite the wrong message to the IRA. The Blair Government has shown fewer qualms.

As time has gone by, both the British and Irish Governments have come to accept that the success of the more politically-oriented elements of the IRA in carrying the hard-liners with them has depended on putting off decommissioning at least until after Sinn Fein has been admitted to the proposed all-party Northern Ireland Executive. They have therefore been prepared to fudge the timing of decommissioning. The Ulster Unionist Party, on the other hand, which has the support of a bare majority of the Unionist population, became very unhappy about the drift towards acceptance of the entry into the Executive of terrorists still holding weapons and explosives.

The dilemma facing the negotiators of the Good Friday Agreement was eventually overcome by allowing the connection between decommissioning and the formation of the Executive to remain ambiguous, but the ambiguity subsequently became a trap in which the two key parties involved succeeded in enmeshing themselves.

On the one hand, the participants in the Agreement, which included Sinn Fein but not the IRA, reaffirmed ‘their commitment to the total disarmament of all paramilitary organisations’, and expressed their ‘absolute commitment to exclusively democratic and peaceful means . . . and opposition to any use or threat of force by others’. The deadline for the completion of decommissioning was two years from the signing of the Agreement, a period subsequently defined as ending in May 2000 – but no date was specified for starting the process. By contrast, the Executive was to be set up quite quickly.

The Unionists were bound to be displeased with this interpretation of the timing of events. Some were not prepared to accept the absence of any provision requiring decommissioning to precede the establishment of the Executive. Others were persuaded by the two Governments to accept the Agreement, so as ‘to allow Republicans space and time to work out how they were to honour the clear commitments in the Agreement’; as one participant put it, ‘we listened to those who exhorted us to take political risks, and put on the back-burner our natural inclination to want a clear contract.’

In deciding at the very end of the negotiations to accept the terms of the Agreement, despite the defection at that point of one of their key negotiators, David Trimble and his colleagues were clearly influenced by a private letter they received from Tony Blair, saying that he interpreted the Agreement to mean that decommissioning ‘should’ begin straightaway. This was, however, a unilateral statement that could not by definition vary the written terms of the Agreement. Moreover, the use of the word ‘should’ rather than ‘must’ involved one more crucial ambiguity.

Thereafter, Sinn Fein, and through them the IRA, stuck firmly to the letter of the Agreement, which enables them to argue legalistically that the UUP are in default of their obligations as a result of their failure to agree to the early establishment of the Executive – whereas they have not defaulted on a decommissioning commitment which is not due to be fulfilled until May of next year. For Unionists this represents an abuse of both the spirit and the intent of the Agreement. They also reject Sinn Fein’s claim that it does not represent the IRA (a fiction rejected by almost everyone else in Ireland, as well as in Britain), and what appears to be an IRA interpretation of the ceasefire – which has gone unchallenged by the Irish and British Governments – as excluding violence, some of it lethal, directed by them at members of their own nationalist community: drug-dealers, petty criminals and those suspected of having provided information to the RUC.

How is it that the problems involved in the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement did not emerge when it was signed? Two factors prevented most of us – perhaps even the two Governments – from understanding how dangerous the constructive ambiguity would turn out to be.

First, David Trimble had gone ahead and signed the Agreement even though one of his negotiating team, Jeffrey Donaldson, had walked out; and had then taken a tough line with dissidents the following day at a Unionist Party meeting. These facts combined to distract attention from the dangers inherent in his position having become so dependent on a flimsy piece of paper – the Blair letter. Only some time later did it become clear that, when one might have hoped he would be setting out to sell the Agreement to the Unionists, what he perceived to be the extreme vulnerability of his position was leading him to commit himself ever more specifically to decommissioning being started in advance of the establishment of the Executive.

Secondly, it took time for outside observers to see that without the provision which postponed the start of decommissioning the IRA would not have allowed the Sinn Fein leadership to sign the Agreement. To have expected them to give way later on the very point on which their participation had depended was always unrealistic.

What we do not of course know is what was said by the Sinn Fein negotiators or their IRA colleagues when they discussed this issue among themselves before or during their preparations for the negotiations. Was there ever a clear consensus in the joint organisation that decommissioning would take place at some stage? Or was the issue fudged – just as it was to be in the negotiations? And even if decommissioning had been accepted by the IRA as something that might happen at a later stage, was that, perhaps, to be conditional on their satisfaction with the Patten Commission’s ultimate proposals for the reform of the RUC?

What is certain is that whatever ‘seismic’ move the IRA may have finally agreed to make in July, involving, it would appear, some kind of belated commitment to the start of decommissioning immediately after the formation of the Executive, must have been made with great reluctance, and with many misgivings as to whether it would deliver the goods.

But the IRA’s move, much played up by two very relieved Governments, notably failed to elicit a positive reaction from a Unionist Party that was in considerable disarray. Those in the IRA and Sinn Fein who had all along believed – unjustifiably, I’m convinced – that the Unionists had never been serious about sharing power with them, must at that point have emitted a loud ‘We told you so’, leaving Gerry Adams and his fellow negotiators in a very uncomfortable position.

In retrospect, we can now see that a number of factors combined to work against successful implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. In the first place, the two Governments, which for so long had worked skilfully and closely together, seemed towards the end to lose their way, betrayed by desperation, and perhaps exhaustion, into a series of ill-judged moves, which is not to suggest that anyone else could have done better: some challenges are just too severe. But trust has now been damaged all round: between the SDLP and the UUP; between the two Governments and the two contending Northern parties; and perhaps also within Sinn Fein/IRA. It remains to be seen, indeed, whether, in the light of the debacle, those who have led Sinn Fein and the IRA so near to a peaceful settlement will now retain the authority to pursue the matter further.

In the next few weeks, Senator George Mitchell will presumably seek to revive the ‘deal’ that failed to materialise six weeks ago. To succeed, he will need to persuade David Trimble to carry enough members of his Party with him this time around to guarantee the outcome: to agree to the formation of an Executive on the basis of a revived, and perhaps more explicit, IRA commitment to start decommissioning immediately afterwards. That would, of course, involve a reversal of all that has been said by Sinn Fein and by the IRA since the last negotiations collapsed, to the effect that decommissioning is now off the agenda for the foreseeable future. George Mitchell will need to persuade the IRA that such a belated climb-down by the UUP would represent for them and their supporters a victory substantial enough to justify reviving the ‘seismic shift’ of July.

Either of these acts of persuasion would be an extraordinary achievement for the mediator, but such an outcome, however improbable, seems to be the only possible way forward – for Unionists and nationalists alike. The Unionists cannot lose. In the worst case, if the IRA either refuses to reiterate its July offer or, having reiterated it, fails to deliver on it, the Unionists’ negotiating position with the two Governments, and the moral strength of their position vis à vis world opinion, will have been immensely strengthened. In the best case, they will have secured a stable, peaceful and prosperous future for Northern Ireland.

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Vol. 21 No. 20 · 14 October 1999

Garret FitzGerald says that ‘without the provision which postponed the start of decommissioning, the IRA would not have allowed the Sinn Fein leadership to sign the Agreement’ (LRB, 2 September). In fact, Sinn Fein did not sign the Agreement – nobody did, as it was accepted on a vote. Moreover, in that vote Sinn Fein abstained, establishing for itself a unique position among those who subsequently campaigned for a ‘Yes’ vote in the referendum.

Sean McDougall
Institute of Contemporary British History,
London WC1

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