The New Belfast Agreement


In the Joint Declaration by the British and Irish Governments, published in April 2003, Tony Blair has modified the Belfast Agreement, with Bertie Ahern’s consent, to make Sinn Fein membership of the Executive conditional, not just on the decommissioning of IRA arms, but also on the disbandment of the IRA.


He has done this in an attempt to save David Trimble.  The history of the Agreement has been littered with such attempts.  This is just the latest.  One would have thought that, by now, he would have learnt to recognise a hopeless case when he sees one.


The original Agreement contains no commitment to bring about the actual decommissioning of any paramilitary arms, let alone paramilitary disbandment, prior to the formation of an executive, or for that matter ever.


Paragraph 3 of the Decommissioning Section of the Agreement merely says:


“All participants accordingly reaffirm their commitment to the total disarmament of all paramilitary organisations. They also confirm their intention to continue to work constructively and in good faith with the Independent Commission, and to use any influence they may have, to achieve the decommissioning of all paramilitary arms within two years following endorsement in referendums North and South of the agreement and in the context of the implementation of the overall settlement.”


It is clear from this that, while the decommissioning of paramilitary arms was an aspiration of the original Agreement, it did not require any party to bring about the actual decommissioning of arms, prior to the formation of an Executive.  One member of the Ulster Unionist delegation, Jeffrey Donaldson, walked out of the negotiations on Good Friday because of that. 


Paul Connolly, who was the Belfast Telegraph’s political correspondent at the time, endorsed that view a few days after the Agreement was signed:


 “There is no specific, crystal clear wording that actually bars Sinn Fein, PUP and UDP members being ministers while their armed wings retain weapons, although this would be against the spirit of the Agreement.”  (Belfast Telegraph, 16 April 1998)


Yet for years David Trimble asserted that the Agreement required IRA decommissioning prior to Sinn Fein participation in the Executive.  “No guns, no government” was his slogan.  But instead of telling him to go home and read the Agreement he had accepted on Good Friday, the other parties to the Agreement, apart from Sinn Fein, continually gave credence to his plainly erroneous interpretation.


The process of muddying the water on decommissioning began with the letter of comfort Tony Blair wrote for David Trimble on the day the Agreement was signed, in order to persuade him and the rest of the UUP delegation to accept the Agreement.  The following is the text of that letter:


“I understand your problem with Paragraph 25 of Strand 1 is that it requires decisions on those who should be excluded or removed from office in the Northern Ireland Executive to be taken on a cross-community basis.


“This letter is to let you know that if, during the course of the first 6 months of the Shadow Assembly or the Assembly itself, these provisions have been shown to be ineffective, we will support changes to these provisions to enable them to be made properly effective in preventing such people from holding office.


“Furthermore, I confirm that in our view the effect of the decommissioning section of the Agreement, with decommissioning schemes coming into effect in June, is that the process of decommissioning should begin straight away.”


The final paragraph says that, in the British Government’s view, decommissioning should begin in June 1998.  It carefully doesn’t say that a start to decommissioning by June is a requirement of the Agreement – which it obviously isn’t.  But it served to encourage a stance which assumed that actual decommissioning is a requirement of the Agreement and, furthermore, that there would be actual decommissioning of IRA arms prior to Sinn Fein Ministers taking their place in an Executive (which couldn’t be formed until after Assembly elections at the end of June).


At a press conference on 16 April 1998, Trimble insisted that Sinn Fein and other parties linked to paramilitaries would have to decommission before holding office in a Northern Ireland Executive (Belfast Telegraph, 16 April 1998).  On the same day, he warned in the Northern Ireland Forum that there would be a “major crisis” in the new arrangements if the decommissioning of illegal weapons didn’t occur.  And in an article in the Belfast Telegraph on 17 April 1998, he wrote:


“If the decommissioning aspects of the Agreement to exclude paramilitary linked parties from position in the Executive prove ineffective, they will be toughened.”


So, within a week, encouraged by Blair’s letter, the Agreement had been amended by Trimble to make IRA decommissioning a pre-condition for Sinn Fein taking up positions on the Executive. 


Blair’s Good Friday letter was the first of several interventions by him during the referendum campaign, which muddied the water on decommissioning, in order to persuade Unionists to vote Yes.  Normally, Blair was careful not to say things which were in direct conflict with what was in the Agreement but, encouraged by the Downing Street machine, the interpretation of what he said, or was about to say, went well beyond the Agreement. 


Listen to this from the Belfast Telegraph on 14 May 1998, previewing his speech later that day at Balmoral.  This was based on comments by his ‘chief spokesman’.  The Telegraph front-page lead was headed “Blair lays down law on weapons”, splashed over eight columns.  It said: “Tony Blair today will reinforce his promise that the release of prisoners and the right to sit in a new executive must be tied to the handling of arms”.  It continued: “Mr Blair, said sources, is ready to accept the case by Tory and Unionist MPs such as Mr Donaldson that decommissioning safeguards should be in legislation”.


His final intervention in the referendum campaign was in an article published in the Irish News and the News Letter on the morning of the referendum.  This contained the following extraordinary paragraph:


“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 bombings, killings, beatings, and an end to targeting, recruiting and all the structures of terrorism.


“I have set out the tests for this. They will be enshrined in law and these tests will be applied more and more rigorously as time goes on.  There can be no fudge between democracy and terror. The people of Northern Ireland will not stand for this.  As prime minister of this country nor will I.”


Anybody reading that before going out to vote could be forgiven for thinking that they were voting on an Agreement which required the IRA, not just to decommission arms, but also to disband, before Sinn Fein would be allowed into a Northern Ireland government, and that the Government was going to legislate to ensure this.  There is, of course, no such pre-condition in the Agreement.


But, there is now.



Irish Political Review

July 2003