Irish Peace Talks: Long Good Friday for men of honour

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The Independent Online
AT THE end of the long Good Friday, as they began to pull down tent city at Stormont, David Ervine of the Progressive Unionist Party announced he was going off to the pub: "After all I must keep in touch with my constituents."

That raised a laugh. A very tired official from the Northern Ireland Office allowed himself a smile and said that the public will never know how just close the Northern Ireland peace talks had come to collapsing.

The fact that David Ervine, - not so long ago regarded as being on the extreme fringes of loyalism - was there at all helps to illustrate the extent of the achievement of the talks.

His impassioned defence of the agreement afterwards, saying: "It was an honourable deal made by honourable men," also points towards optimism for the future.

New political leaders have risen in Ulster, changing the political map of the province.

But it was the traditional party of Protestant Ascendency who had almost brought the peace process to a halt just a few hours before the ultimate successful conclusion.

Under pressure from some colleagues, including those who are said to covet his job, the Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimble suddenly produced two booby-trapped rabbits out of his red, white and blue hat 14 hours after the theoretical deadline set by Senator George Mitchell.

Mr Trimble raised the matter of arms decommissioning, which had been a fundamental obstacle to republican participation in the peace talks in the past, and also the question of whether politicians with links to terrorism should get a place in the executive for the projected Assembly.

For the assembled media encamped outside Stormont, the feeling quickly spread that "it was all doomed".

This was heightened by the numerous briefings given by some Unionists that the party did not want to share a table at the executive with Sinn Fein.

The Ulster Unionists were also said to be having doubts about being able to sell the agreement to the loyalist population, with the Reverend Ian Paisley ranting on about the betrayal of those who signed the same deal as Sinn Fein.

The atmosphere heated up in the biting cold wind. Tony Blair, we were told, had called in Mr Trimble for a meeting which had been incendiary. Some government officials talked of sabotage and Sinn Fein was grimly satisfied that all it had been saying about the Unionists' supposed antipathy towards agreeing to peace was being shown to be true.

But then, apparently, Mr Blair produced his trump card: the special relationship with Bill Clinton.

The British leader and US President were said to have carried out a series of syrup and cosh conversations with the main participants, and an agreement was hammered out.

Mr Trimble exacted a letter from Mr Blair "clarifying" the two points at issue, but nothing else.

Enter the Prime Minister's official spokesman, Alastair Campbell, into a packed media hut looking dramatic. He announced that the deal was more or less done, and soon afterwards the press and TV crews had rushed over to see Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern, the Taoiseach, emerge to announce the triumphant ending.

After they made their speeches, and as the questions began, a sudden snow shower started and they dived back inside. One journalist quipped "That's new Labour for you - they can even switch on the weather when the difficult questions begin."