Mandelson: The Peacebroker

In these exclusive extracts from Donald Macintyre's newly updated biography of Peter Mandelson, he reveals, for the first time, what really happened when Mandelson succeeded Mo Mowlam in Northern Ireland - and how tensions almost tore the peace process apart
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The Independent Online

Peter Mandelson appears to have had no inkling, when he received the summons to Downing Street at his Holland Park flat on 11 October 1999, that he was to be appointed to the Northern Ireland Office. If he was going to take part in the reshuffle at all, the Ministry of Defence seemed a likelier destination - especially as Sir Charles Guthrie, the Chief of the Defence Staff, would have approved. Mandelson had commended himself to Sir Charles, when, as minister without portfolio, he had championed the Forces' cause in the fierce battle over Whitehall spending which had followed the Strategic Defence Review of 1998. He had also indicated his preparedness to come back from his back-bench exile to a government job below the rank of Cabinet Minister, as a minister of state. Blair had toyed with this idea during the summer, but had decided that it was impractical, not least because it would have created tensions with whichever Cabinet Minister would have become Mandelson's boss.

Peter Mandelson appears to have had no inkling, when he received the summons to Downing Street at his Holland Park flat on 11 October 1999, that he was to be appointed to the Northern Ireland Office. If he was going to take part in the reshuffle at all, the Ministry of Defence seemed a likelier destination - especially as Sir Charles Guthrie, the Chief of the Defence Staff, would have approved. Mandelson had commended himself to Sir Charles, when, as minister without portfolio, he had championed the Forces' cause in the fierce battle over Whitehall spending which had followed the Strategic Defence Review of 1998. He had also indicated his preparedness to come back from his back-bench exile to a government job below the rank of Cabinet Minister, as a minister of state. Blair had toyed with this idea during the summer, but had decided that it was impractical, not least because it would have created tensions with whichever Cabinet Minister would have become Mandelson's boss.

Blair had considered replacing the then Northern Ireland Secretary, Mo Mowlam, with Mandelson in July, proposing to her that, as a politician still at the peak of her popularity, she would be wonderfully well-placed to become London's first directly elected mayor. But Mowlam insisted that she wanted to remain in the Cabinet, underpinning her resistance by publicly declaring during the Eddisbury by-election her desire to stay in Northern Ireland.

At that time Mandelson wrote to Blair stating that he did not want to be considered for the job at that time, explaining that both he and Blair might face adverse reaction in the party if it appeared that Mowlam had been forced out of office to make way for his return after only six months. She was, of course, the most personally popular Secretary of State since direct rule. Her bravery in going into the Maze prison to confront loyalist prisoners threatening the cease-fire was justly admired. And her courage in overcoming serious illness became, in the minds of much of the public, a kind of symbol of hope that the obstacles to peace could be overcome.

But by October, things had changed, and now Mandelson was asked to replace Mowlam in Belfast; generously, she was even to accompany him to show him round Hillsborough Castle. As Mowlam's successor, Mandelson was also helped by the controversial but - certainly from the point of view of the peace process - correct decision she had taken the previous August: that the cease-fire was not breaking down, despite the arrests of republicans in Florida on 27 July for alleged gunrunning and the murder by republicans of the taxi driver Charles Bennett, three days later. Both had placed huge strains on the peace process, provoking outraged calls from Unionists that the cease-fire be declared null and void. If Mowlam had given in to this pressure there would have been no peace process for Mandelson to preside over.

Gobsmacked

Intensive negotiations through the autumn of 1999, chaired by Senator George Mitchell, produced, for the first time, a specific statement from the IRA promising to liaise with General John de Chastelain, the Canadian general appointed to oversee decommissioning. The hope was that this would be enough for the Ulster Unionists to agree to activate the new Northern Ireland assembly and executive, ending a period of almost 30 years of continuous direct rule. But after an initial meeting of his party on 11 November the portents were not good.

When David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionists, arrived back from the meeting he was as downcast as any of those present could remember him. He desperately wanted the Good Friday agreement, on which the new power-sharing devolved institutions would be based, to work. But he did not believe he could persuade the wider party, and in particular its sovereign body, the Ulster Unionist Party Council. At best it would split the party irrevocably. There had not been a vote, he explained to Mandelson and the Sinn Fein leaders, but he could tell that the opposition was too strong. Mandelson was, by his own account, "gobsmacked". The Secretary of State paused before saying he was "very disappointed" and believed his decision would have "calamitous consequences" both for the party and for Trimble personally. At this point Gerry Adams intervened: "Can I ask you a question, David?" he said to Trimble. "Did you actually try and persuade your people and make the case for the agreement?''

Trimble reacted to this question with considerable irritation, saying that how he dealt with his party was his own business. Adams persisted, saying: "I think we are entitled to know whether [or not] you tried to persuade them." Trimble, visibly annoyed, said he had said as much as he was going to say on the subject. Adams had hit a raw nerve; up to this point it had not occurred to Mandelson that Trimble might have merely reported, rather than actively "sold" the agreement to the UUP assembly members. Mandelson now revived a previous suggestion that he had made - that he should address Trimble's assembly members himself. Intervening in support of Adams's point, he said: "Well, I think we are entitled to know whether you tried to persuade the assembly members to accept the settlement. I think at least that I am entitled to speak to the assembly members."

Trimble replied: "Well, we can discuss that separately." Which they now did, alone. This time, Mandelson was much blunter. Without any effort being made to persuade the assembly members, Trimble would come out of the episode very badly, looking weak. Mandelson now insisted, moreover, on being allowed to make a direct appeal to the 27 Unionists who were gathered at the parliament building.

Accompanied by the two Northern Ireland Office political directors, Bill Jeffrey and Jonathan Stephens, Mandelson was taken into the meeting room where the stony-faced assembly members were waiting. Speaking calmly, but with great emphasis, he said there was no fallback; this was the best position that could be negotiated. He was not, he stressed, going to threaten the Unionists by saying that if they failed to agree, the two governments would impose a settlement that might be less favourable to them. He believed in "local politicians deciding their own future together". But he added: "This is the best opportunity for a generation. You have nothing to lose. If the IRA don't follow by decommissioning, I'll stand by you. I won't allow you to bear the burden of being blamed for the failure."

Mandelson and the officials now returned to their offices at Stormont's Castle Buildings to await the results. It was at this point that Trimble took what he called a "straw poll". As Trimble looked at the voting slips, he noted that support for the agreement had increased somewhat but that the party was still split on broadly similar lines to before. When he returned, he was in a slightly better mood. But he repeated to Mandelson and Bill Jeffrey that he still had a problem. He had, as he put it, the "numbers, but not the weight", even though at least two members had now been swung over to backing the agreement. At this point, Mandelson told Trimble emphatically that with such a vote, he had a "duty" to take the settlement to the ruling council. "David," he added, "how are you going to explain to the world that the assembly party have voted in favour of doing this [allowing the cross-community executive to take power], but you haven't done it?"

It was the turning point. Trimble, with the active help of Mandelson, would now begin campaigning for a "Yes" vote at the Ulster Unionist council meeting on 27 November. But when John Taylor, the party's deputy leader, had left at the beginning of the week of the Council meeting for a meeting of the Council of Europe in Bulgaria, Trimble knew from speaking to him that he had still not decided his pivotal vote. Then, on the Tuesday evening, Taylor had received a call on his mobile phone in his Sofia hotel room from the Ulster Unionist leader's office, disclosing the tactic that Trimble had now decided, in considerable secrecy, to adopt at the council meeting: If the IRA did not begin decommissioning by the beginning of February, he would resign as First Minister. And he would announce at the meeting on Saturday that he was submitting to the party officers a post-dated letter to that effect. What did Taylor think? Taylor had paused for a moment. "I'll run with that," he said.

Taylor's vote was pivotal when the Ulster Unionist council voted in favour of allowing the new devolved executive to take power on 27 November. That decision, reported to Mandelson at Norwich airport on his way to a wedding, was a huge relief. But what Mandelson, let alone Gerry Adams, had been wholly unprepared for was Trimble's announcement at the council meeting that he had lodged a post-dated February resignation letter with the party president, Sir Josias Cunningham. For Trimble, it seemed to be the only way of getting the decision through. But the ploy caused immediate alarm in the republican leadership, who saw the Trimble move as confronting them with a deadline - and one which had not been discussed in the Mitchell review.

Under Threat

The historic new Northern Ireland executive and assembly assumed its powers at midnight on 1 December 1999. For the first time, Sinn Fein ministers sat round the cabinet table with Unionists. But the future remained all too dependent on whether the IRA would make a gesture on decommissioning by February. With no progress on this by 3 February, Mandelson sought to pre-empt Trimble's promised resignation by announcing in the Commons that he would suspend the new executive if there was no further step on decommissioning in the next few days.

Dublin believed that Mandelson's suspension threat would make it more difficult to extract concessions from the IRA. But, realising that Mandelson was serious, the Irish were determined to try and persuade the IRA to move before Trimble's deadline. An earlier IRA formulation, code-named ANGEL, was judged to fall well short of what Trimble would require to survive his meeting; it had talked only of the IRA considering "how" it might put its arms beyond use. Eventually, in the small hours of Friday 10 February - the very day suspension was due to take effect - a breakthrough appeared to have been made.

At 10.15am, with the Ulster Unionist council having been convened for the following day, Downing Street received a message from the Taioseach's Office in Dublin that a new form of words from the IRA was on its way. At 10.45am, a fax marked "secret", described as a "draft statement" of an IRA leadership position arrived at Downing Street. It said:

"The peace process contains the potential to remove the causes of conflict and to deliver a durable peace if the political will exists. This can be advanced by full implementation of the Good Friday agreement.

In the context of a process that will progressively and irreversibly remove the causes of conflict, the leadership of 'Oglaigh na héireann' [the IRA] will initiate an internal process subject to our constitution that will finally and completely put IRA arms beyond use.

This process will be designed to avoid risk to the public and misappropriation by others. The leadership of 'Oglaigh na héireann' will facilitate verification of this.

This will be done in such a way to ensure public confidence and to resolve the issue of arms in a complete and acceptable way."

This text, which has not been published before, was clearly a significant advance. But by linking de- commissioning to the removal of "the causes of conflict" (hitherto republican code for the British presence in Northern Ireland), it could even be read as implying that decommissioning would not happen until there was a united Ireland. The second problem, as the Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern would make clear in a telephone call to Blair some 35 minutes later, was that Gerry Adams was not prepared to make the new formulation public. The IRA leaders who had drafted the text had not yet "briefed" their rank and file, and it might well provoke a backlash from grassroots republicans if it was made public first.

At 11.30am, with the scheduled time for suspension only half-an-hour away, Blair spoke directly to Adams. The Sinn Fein president now conceded that the text could be given to General de Chastelain, the man charged with producing a report on whether the IRA had genuinely moved on decommissioning, though it could not be quoted in his report. For the text to become the IRA's formal position, Trimble would have to withdraw his resignation and Mandelson would have to repeal the suspension legislation.

At midday, Mandelson decided to postpone suspension for three hours. Trimble stressed to Mandelson that time was rapidly running out and argued that suspension should go ahead while the IRA position was further explored and clarified. Mandelson argued that in that event the IRA might well simply disengage from the process.

Mandelson pointed out that the IRA might at last be "blinking". If that was so, replied Trimble, they could be pushed to move further. At the moment, the Unionists had been offered the vague possibility of, at best, no more than half of what they wanted - a commitment but no timetable. If De Chastelain was going to be able to do no more than report that the IRA was going to discuss how it might eventually decommission then he, Trimble, would have to resign or face destruction. Mandelson stressed that the Government was not about to let the Unionists down after their honourable risk in agreeing to devolution in November, and proposed the post-dating suspension for two weeks to allow further talks. Trimble, after a moment's hesitation, said no. With a hint of irritation, he confided to Downing Street his view that Trimble now seemed more interested in "survival than solutions".

Shortly after 1pm, with British and Irish officials now mutually resolved to try and stretch the extent to which De Chastelain could report a clear commitment by the IRA, the Canadian general received a call from the IRA representative, Brian Keenan. Keenan, widely seen as the leading hardliner on the IRA Army Council, asked him to a meeting - which only took place after De Chastelain made a complicated cloak-and-dagger journey, involving a switch of cars before his eventual arrival at a safe house on the outskirts of Belfast. As these contacts were underway, Mandelson spoke to Adams by telephone at 1.50pm and reported on his conversation with Trimble. Mandelson made it clear he had put as positive a gloss as possible on the latest developments, but also warned that Trimble was under considerable pressure, not made easier by Sir Josias Cunningham "hovering in the background". Adams was adamant that this proposal was the republicans' final effort and that Trimble should be told that the suspension legislation would be withdrawn on the basis of a positive report by De Chastelain. In the meantime, Martin McGuinness would be seeing Trimble personally. Mandelson replied pregnantly that McGuinness had better be persuasive.

In the event, he was not. As Trimble would later claim to Mandelson, McGuinness was at his most charmless when the two met at Stormont at about 2pm. Instead of giving Trimble a detailed account of the new IRA position, McGuinness merely insisted that Trimble should withdraw his resignation, cancel the party council meeting scheduled for the following day and agree to the repeal of the suspension legislation; in return, he would only say that unspecified proposals had been made by the IRA which could lead to a solution within the next few weeks. Trimble retorted that he had no more than a couple of hours. He would later complain that, while not overtly threatening, McGuinness had come close to being so. On this basis, Trimble said he could not possibly survive the council meeting.

Once again Mandelson, despite Trimble's now much more vehement warnings that time was running out, deferred signing the commencement order for suspension, in the hope that De Chastelain could secure further concessions from the republicans that might save Trimble. Trimble protested that a decision would have to be taken within the hour, while the office of the Assembly Speaker, Lord Alderdice, was still open - a stipulation about which Mandelson expressed some scepticism. In fact, Mandelson had deliberately urged Alderdice, a psycho- therapist, to make himself scarce and "do a clinic or play a round of golf" in case Trimble's resignation should be prematurely enacted. And certainly, De Chastelain was not inactive. At 4.25pm, he reported to the NIO. The IRA were still refusing the inclusion of a harder commitment to decommissioning along the lines of its secret text. Instead it would have to refer to the IRA considering "how to put arms and explosives beyond use in the context of full implementation of the... agreement and in the context of the removal of the causes of conflict".

The upshot of all these tortuous negotiations was that De Chastelain's report could not go as far as an IRA text which even in its unvarnished form was highly unlikely to be enough to sway the Ulster Unionist Council meeting. At 4.35pm, Blair spoke to Adams and said the report would not satisfy Trimble.

The die was now cast. With Cunningham increasingly restive, and Trimble increasingly agitated, Mandelson's options had now run out. Just before 5pm, his private office took a call from Trimble's office saying he feared Cunningham would leave to deliver the resignation letter "at any moment" - with all the dire consequences that would inevitably follow. Mandelson signed the commencement order at 5.03pm. At 5.15pm, Adams issued a statement that there had been a "new and significant" breakthrough by the IRA - though without specifying it in detail - and he called on Mandelson to rescind the suspension legislation. At virtually the same moment Martin McGuinness told De Chastelain that the IRA were ready to agree to one further amendment in the general's report: the words "to further discussions" could be omitted from the reference to "commitment" in the general's Paragraph Eight.

The change was another modest advance; it removed one hedging phrase from what remained a pretty hedged report. De Chastelain and his colleagues, moreover, would tell Mandelson early the following week that they had had the impression after the hectic negotiations that the move was not merely "tactical", and that they were making a genuine effort to grapple with the decommissioning issue. But it was almost certainly too little, as well as too late. Even if it had come earlier, it would hardly have been enough to change Trimble's mind. As Mandelson now pointed out to Blair, Adams had seemingly not produced the final amendment until he knew that suspension had gone through.

The Irish government, appalled at the idea of suspension going ahead, pressed for a further delay. Anglo-Irish relations were now about to go through their most strained period since Blair had taken office. But Ahern had one trump card still to play: the President of the United States. Bill Clinton, apparently at the urging of Ahern, now called Blair to urge him to defer suspension. According to one official, when Blair started to sketch in the background of the day's events, Clinton cut him off, seeming "keen to cut to the chase". Surely, the President said, Trimble understood that this was a breakthrough? Blair was firm in reply. First Adams had held off making his best offer until the suspension order had been signed. Secondly Trimble had been so "dicked around" by Sinn Fein that the republicans' latest ploy would hardly be helpful. Bluntly, Clinton asked whether the suspension order could be reversed. Equally bluntly Blair said it could not.

Two hours were spent by British officials on seeking to dissuade their counterparts in Dublin and Washington from suggesting that the institutions could be miraculously revived on the basis of De Chastelain's second report. Then, at about 8.30pm, Ahern called again to try and persuade Blair to agree to London and Dublin issuing what one British official would call a "hopelessly over-positive" joint statement welcoming De Chastelain's report. The statement, proposed by Ahern, would have said that Blair now intended to go back to Parliament to rescind suspension. Blair stood firm. Ahern now took the unusual step of putting an incandescent Paddy Teahon - the key official on Northern Ireland in Ahern's office - on the line. According to British sources, Teahon went to the outer limits of normal protocol for an official speaking to another country's prime minister in urging the joint statement. He also roundly condemned Mandelson for acting in a precipitate and disgraceful way, unaware that - as during all the calls between Dublin and London that day - Mandelson had been plugged into the conversation by the Downing Street switchboard. In the end, however, Teahon recognised a joint statement was not going to happen, and dropped the matter.

A Break-Through?

Between the suspension of the devolved assembly and executive in February and early May, there were intensive talks between the British and Irish governments, Ulster Unionists and Sinn Fein, designed to produce further movement on decommissioning. They were coloured by continuing anger by the republicans and by Dublin at Mandelson's decision to suspend the devolved institutions. The process reached its climax on 5 May when both prime ministers travelled to Belfast for the final talks.

ON 5 MAY, at the end of a long day's negotiations between Blair, Ahern and the parties at Hillsborough, the final IRA text - beside greatly strengthening the language on decommissioning - promised for the first time "a confidence-building measure" (which would turn out to be independent inspection of arms dumps). Mandelson handed the new text to Trimble. After reading it, Trimble turned to Mandelson and said: "You've been conned." Mandelson retorted: "Don't accuse me of selling you out. I've done my best. It's difficult to know what Secretary of State could do more. This is the best IRA statement you are ever likely to get, and if you don't like it you can throw it in the waste basket."

Trimble would become more reflective. But it would be a fortnight before he decided to campaign actively for a return to devolution.

The Ulster Unionist council backed a return to devolution on 27 May and Mandelson signed the order restoring the executive and assembly. On 26 June, it was announced that the international inspectors Martti Ahtisaari and Cyril Ramaphosa had examined IRA arms dumps. For the time being, fierce arguments about the implementation of the Patten report on police reform notwithstanding, the peace process was secure.

* Donald Macintyre's biography, 'Mandelson and the making of New Labour' is published in paperback by Harper Collins (£6.99)

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