The tragic breakdown of relations between Dublin and London and a 1998 Agreement that was not the last word

The most tragic element of Brexit and its aftermath – for me as a Northern Irish person who is also a happy citizen of the Republic of Ireland – is the total breakdown in relations between the Irish and British governments. One of the most hopeful lessons of the ‘peace process’ period – running roughly from the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985 to the return of policing and justice powers to the Northern Ireland Executive in 2010 – was that Dublin and London, so long mutually suspicious adversaries, became friends and partners in two noble undertakings: the end of conflict in the North, and the construction of a peaceful and prosperous Europe.

All that has gone now, with Boris Johnson in Downing Street, the NI Executive and Assembly suspended and – depending on your point of view – the ‘scrap the protocol’ legislation and/or the Irish Sea trade ‘border’ poisoning relations between Dublin and London. And the future for those crucial relations looks bleak. I simply don’t know how we are going to move towards any real kind of partnership on this island – let alone unity – when in a few short years those almost certainly heading the Irish government will hold as an article of faith that the source of all evil in Ireland is Britain, and those in power in London are hard-line right-wingers who dismiss Ireland’s concerns with indifference and contempt.

I have been reading the submissions last month to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement of three former senior Department of Foreign Affairs officials who were key players in the negotiation of that agreement: Rory Montgomery, David Donoghue and Tim O’Connor. These are wise, fair-minded and hugely knowledgeable men and their thoughts are worth pondering in our present difficult circumstances. They were talking about what transpired in the months, weeks and days running up to the Good Friday Agreement, described in an article in the current issue of the Belfast magazine Fortnight by Montgomery as “a towering achievement of Irish diplomacy and statecraft”.1

In his submission to the Good Friday Agreement Committee Montgomery (who went on to become Second Secretary General in the Departments of the Taoiseach and Foreign Affairs, and a key figure in the post-Brexit negotiations) was more circumspect. He recalled the “near chaos” of the final week of negotiations in April 1998 (which is “entirely typical of negotiating endgames, and indeed usually necessary to achieve the fluidity required for final compromises. Stress, exhaustion and adrenaline all play their part”). He admitted the nettles of arms decommissioning, criminal justice, human rights and issues of symbolism were not firmly grasped (and couldn’t have been if the negotiations were to be concluded before Senator George Mitchell’s deadline). And he warned against the Agreement “being treated as if it were handed down graven in tablets of stone.”

He noted that “huge attention” was paid to North-South structures (Strand Two), and much less to internal Northern Ireland governance (Strand One). “Yet aspects including the consequences of d’Hondt, how the institutions secure cross-community consensus, the treatment of ‘others’, and their functionality have turned out to be much more critical to the working of the Agreement as a whole”.

“It is also striking how little of any substance was said about legacy issues, reconciliation or combatting sectarianism. The sense may have been that progress would follow the development of mutual understanding and cooperation at the political level, but I have heard others (including Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition members) lament that these were seen as ‘soft’, second-order issues.”

Of course there was no need in 1998 “to say anything about the place of the UK and Ireland, and thus of the two parts of the island, in the European Union. No mention was made of the border, nor of the integration of Northern Ireland into the UK’s internal market.”

Decommissioning was a real bugbear. This was particularly so for the Ulster Unionists, who at all times were struggling to bring their constituency, bitterly hostile to the IRA, on board the Agreement. “The UUP eventually agreed to let the institutions go live, on the basis of a clear expectation, confirmed by Senator Mitchell after his second stint as a facilitator in late 1999, that decommissioning would begin almost instantaneously. This expectation was not met, and the frustrating and protracted stalemate seriously compromised the Agreement’s implementation in its early years, and contributed decisively to the loss of unionist confidence in [David] Trimble and the rise of the DUP. By focussing attention on the republican movement, it may also have helped to weaken the SDLP.”

“The internal reasons for republicans’ extreme caution can be understood, and, far from damaging Sinn Fein’s electoral prospects, the focus on decommissioning probably enhanced them. For the two governments, the maintenance of peace was paramount, and this meant keeping Sinn Fein on board. Nevertheless, I personally regard the failure to fulfil what Mitchell understood to be firm promises of a start to [IRA] decommissioning in early 2000 as a huge missed opportunity, with the consequence that the Executive never gained the momentum required to realise its potential.”

Montgomery had high praise for David Trimble. “His strategic insight was that that unionism had to engage with change if it was to manage it. He displayed consistent determination and political courage in dragging his party and just enough members of the public along with him. Without his agonising decision on the afternoon of 10 April to go ahead without Jeffrey Donaldson and others of the brightest younger members of his party, including Arlene Foster, there would have been no Agreement. During the early years of its implementation, he consistently just about managed to maintain a wafer-thin majority within the Ulster Unionist Council, notwithstanding his opponents’ determined efforts to stop him. Neither the [Irish] government, nor any of the other party leaders, faced anything like the same challenges, although the personal risks to Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness were real.”

Montgomery’s conclusion, looking back at the Good Friday Agreement, was that “at times the narrative of its creation may be too simple. It emerged from a complex and imperfect, and ultimately very rushed, negotiation…in some instances ambiguity may eventually have turned out to be an enemy, not a friend. So the Agreement is not, and was never intended to be, the last word. It will be for the current and next generations of politicians, officials and civil society leaders to decide if, how and when it could or should be revised.”

David Donoghue (who went on to become Irish Ambassador in Moscow and to the UN) began his submission by emphasising that “we would not have achieved the Good Friday Agreement without the close cooperation between the Irish and British governments which was inaugurated by the Anglo-Irish  Agreement in 1985. While the road we travelled together was often bumpy, Dublin and London together provided the motor for the peace process. We kept very tight control behind the scenes of the negotiations which delivered the GFA, even if Senator George Mitchell and his fellow chairmen were formally in charge.”

Donoghue’s conclusion was that the 1998 Agreement is “not perfect. Some believed that Sunningdale, if it had been implemented, would have been a better deal for Nationalists. Some complain, from a different perspective, about the rigidity of the Strand One safeguards which are intended to protect a Nationalist minority from abuses by a Unionist majority. They argue that these have the effect of perpetuating the traditional polarities. My own view is that, while changing demographics and political tastes may eventually make these protections unnecessary, that day is still a long way off.”

He stressed that “over the past 24 years nobody has suggested that the institutions it [the GFA] set up were the wrong ones. Even the [North/South] implementation bodies, the object of much unionist angst at the time, have been quietly working away without political controversy. The GFA has certainly not delivered all the benefits we had hoped for. There have been long periods of atrophy when the institutions were suspended. But, for all that, it is a better guarantor of peace and stability on this island than anything which preceded it.”

Tim O’Connor (who went on to become Joint Secretary of the North South Ministerial Council and Secretary General to President Mary McAleese) also highlighted the huge importance of the two governments working closely together. “I cannot stress enough how critical that was, with the two Heads of Government, Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern, leading by example. Most of the engagement by the two governments with the parties occurred jointly, with Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern sitting side by side in discussions, emphasising both the closeness of the relationship and the singularity of purpose between them…That did not mean that we were aligned every day on every issue – there were certainly differences of view and emphases between London and Dublin from time to time – but both sides knew, at political and official levels, that it was only by the tightest partnership together that the hugely difficult issues involved could be addressed and resolved.”

One result of this closeness of the two governments – representing close partner nations in the European Union – was an associated thaw in North-South relations on the island of Ireland. The then Northern Ireland First Minister, Peter Robinson, told me in an interview in 2009: “I don’t think the relationship between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic has ever been better than it is at the present time.”

Now, 13 years later, we are back to the bad old days of broken off contacts, boycotted meetings, mutual hostility and misunderstanding, and megaphone diplomacy. For those of us who also played a tiny part in lowering the barriers in these islands and on this island, this is profoundly depressing.

PS My grateful thanks to those readers who have helped to sponsor my all-Ireland cycle for Concern Worldwide’s girls’ education projects in Afghanistan. I leave from Mizen Head in west Cork this Friday, 1st July, and plan to reach Fair Head in north Antrim on 11th July. I have so far raised €6,900 and hope to reach a new target of €8,000. If anyone still wants to support this worthy cause, please donate (in any major currency) at https://fundraise.concern.net/andy-pollak

1 ‘Reforming the Agreement: A Dublin View, Fortnight@51

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