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How peace in Northern Ireland was reached on the basis of honourable deceptions

David Trimble, Tony Blair and John Hume: campaigning for a yes vote on the Good Friday Agreement in May 1998. Chris Bacon/PA Archive

The Good Friday Agreement of April 10, 1998, is the foundation on which an uneasy peace was established in Northern Ireland. The inconvenient truth of the peace process is that peace was achieved using “honourable” deceptions, both large and small.

Populist idealists argue that a straight talking honest politics is possible. Realists claim that deception and hypocrisy is an inevitable part of politics. What’s important is to be able to judge between honourable and dishonourable deceptions.

In Northern Ireland, the intense polarisation of the electorate between nationalists, who favoured Irish unity, and unionists who wanted to remain part of the United Kingdom, made the use of deception particularly important in achieving an accommodation.

Mo Mowlam, Labour’s secretary of state for Northern Ireland at the time, pointed out that the Good Friday Agreement was deliberately written to be “open to multiple interpretations”. This meant that unionists could argue that it “secured the union” while for republicans “it severely weakened it”.

For more on the 20th anniversary of peace in Northern Ireland, listen to The Anthill podcast on the Good Friday Agreement.

Wins all round

The negotiations were choreographed to climax on Good Friday – April 10, 1998 – and the symbolism of Easter was used to win support for the deal. The final week was choreographed by the two governments to give “wins” to all the pro-agreement parties in order to maximise public support.

The US senator, George Mitchell, chairman of the negotiations, had been given a position paper on April 5, the previous Sunday, by the British and Irish governments. They asked him to present this to the Northern Irish parties as his, rather than their, best estimate of where agreement might be achieved.

Mitchell realised the paper was too pro-nationalist because of its emphasis on a strong all-Ireland dimension. He later wrote:

As I read the document I knew instantly that it would not be acceptable to the unionists.

But he went ahead with the charade and presented the “Mitchell document” as his own work.

This “crisis” was the cue for the Labour prime minister, Tony Blair, and the Irish Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, to fly in on April 7 and 8 respectively, and take the stage for the final days of negotiation.

The two governments needed to make sure the principal political parties in favour of an agreement were given a “win”, in a way that would maximise their ability to sell the deal to their particular audiences.

Read more: Good Friday Agreement: ten key people who helped bring about peace in Northern Ireland 20 years ago

Blair’s role was to “rescue” the process and reassure unionists that the union was safe. He rejected “Mitchell’s paper” as too pro-nationalist. The Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) leader, David Trimble, was handed a unionist win. Several participants in the talks suspected choreography. Seamus Mallon, of the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party, was “confident” that changes to the Mitchell document “had been anticipated”. His party were given their “win” when they later secured a strong, power sharing executive.

Sinn Féin, the political wing of the IRA, and loyalist paramilitaries secured a “win” on the release of paramilitary prisoners.

The UUP rejected the agreement’s wording on decommissioning of paramilitary weapons because it did not provide strong enough assurances. At the last moment, Blair provided a “side letter” to reassure the UUP that provided ambiguous assurances on decommissioning. John Taylor MP, the “hardline” deputy leader of the UUP, declared that he was now satisfied on decommissioning and this was thought to have reassured some but not all wavering UUP sceptics. Close observers of the peace process have suggested that Taylor played the role of a “shill” or plant for Trimble, using his hardline reputation to win over sceptical unionists.

In an unscripted moment, Jeffrey Donaldson MP walked out of the negotiations. He later joined the hardline Democratic Unionist Party, led by Ian Paisley, who had always been against the agreement.

Trimble later accepted that he had not got strong enough wording on decommissioning in the agreement. But the alternative was for him to walk away from a deal that stood the best chance of bringing peace to Northern Ireland since the violence began in the late 1960s.

Selling the deal

Blair in front of his handwritten pledge, released ahead of the referendum on the Good Friday Agreement. Chris Bacon/PA Archive

During the referendum campaign that followed the April agreement, unionist opinion shifted against the deal when it appeared that the IRA would not have to decommission before prisoners were released or Sinn Féin sat in government. Blair suggested during the referendum campaign that the Good Friday Agreement required more than decommissioning. He famously gave hand written pledges that could be interpreted as suggesting that until there was decommissioning there could be no release of paramilitary prisoners or participation in government.

My research has shown that this was an “honourable deception”: the prime minister had good reason to believe that without this deceit the referendum would fail, and this risked a return to a war.

On May 22, 1998, a referendum held in Northern Ireland endorsed the agreement, overwhelmingly among nationalists but only by a bare majority of unionists. The first paramilitary prisoners were released in September 1998. In [December 1999]), Sinn Féin took their seats in the power-sharing executive.

In the end, the IRA did not begin decommissioning until October 2001, in the wake of 9/11.

Political actors used their “theatrical skills” to achieve peace in Northern Ireland. Hypocrisy was used to present different faces to different audiences. Many of these deceptions were “honourable” because, in some situations, the end does justify the means.

In these anti-political times it is useful to remember the positive role political actors and such theatrical skills can play in peacemaking.

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