Seizing the moment: David McKittrick, Stephen Castle and Alan Murdoch on how the Anglo-Irish accord came about, and its hopes of success

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LATE on the evening of Saturday, 20 November, the Downing Street switchboard received an unexpected call from the Ritz Hotel in London. The caller explained that the Irish Prime Minister, Albert Reynolds, was staying there overnight before giving a Sunday-morning television interview.

Something had come up, and Reynolds was anxious to speak to John Major. It was the weekend, and Major was not in London. Only after a lengthy delay was the source of the call verified, the Prime Minister tracked down, secure connection made to Chequers and the late-night business transacted.

Rarely in modern British politics can there have been a bout of diplomatic activity to compare with the negotiations which led to last week's joint Anglo-Irish declaration on Northern Ireland. Rarely can a British prime minister have been in such frequent, intimate, detailed and tense contact with the prime minister of another country. And rarely can a negotiation at such high level have been so subject to crises of misunderstanding, leaks and revelations. This was a deal that very nearly did not happen.

In the course of the haggling, the lid was lifted on a web of private, secret and informal contacts which only months ago would have been unthinkable. Somehow, the two governments came through to sign last week's accord.

One detail illustrates how even the simplest aspect of a deal struck at such speed under such pressure could go wrong. Wednesday's historic declaration was to have been announced, not in Downing Street, but in the neutral terrain of Westminster's Queen Elizabeth II conference centre. Unfortunately, when the moment came, the building was already booked for Yasser Arafat.

WHAT was it that set this process in motion? It was not in origin one process, but several, coming together as if by coincidence. Let us start, however, with some ancient history: seeds sown in Belfast more than a decade ago which may now be bearing fruit. In the early 1980s, when Sinn Fein burst into electoral politics with some spectacular gains, most republicans were delighted. There were purists, however, who warned that in the long term what they disdainfully referred to as 'electoralism' could suck the republican movement into the system it opposed.

Today it is by no means settled that the republicans are about to abandon the Armalites, but there is little doubt that the development of Sinn Fein as an electoral party has helped change the character of the republican movement. A culture of internal debate was grafted on to the IRA's militarism, ideas were drawn from a wider slice of the nationalist spectrum, attempts were made to find a place in republican theory for northern Protestants who had been dismissed as 'pseudo-Brits' with no national rights. At the same time, it became apparent by the mid- 1980s that Sinn Fein had passed its electoral peak.

Although many refused to talk to Sinn Fein, a range of private contacts took place with politicians, community workers and clerics. Sinn Fein policy documents became thoughtful, intricate and tediously long. Their titles usually included the word 'peace' and Gerry Adams and other leaders made appeals to the British Gov ernment to open talks.

There were, we now know, secret contacts with the British government, involving many messages, but in essence it is clear the two sides never got beyond an initial statement of positions: they were talks about talks, and they stalled around June. Gerry Adams claims the Government cooled off when John Major realised he needed a parliamentary deal with the Ulster Unionist party.

This 'arrangement' between the Government and the nine Unionist MPs was cemented in July during the Maastricht divisions in the House of Commons, when James Molyneaux's party provided Major with votes vital to his survival in office. The new relationship proved a close one. Molyneaux had frequent audiences with the Prime Minister and the Northern Ireland Secretary, Sir Patrick Mayhew. The Northern Ireland whip, Michael Brown, liaised closely with the nine MPs, conveying information and identifying Unionist concerns.

Whatever its implications in Westminster, this was perceived to be a development to curtail, rather than improve, chances for peace. One group, the Ulster Unionists, appeared to have a veto on progress.

But something was stirring among the nationalists. If Adams had got nowhere with the British government, he was still in contact with the SDLP leader, John Hume. Throughout the 1980s Hume and Adams had a series of exchanges, the SDLP leader trying to persuade the republicans that the violence was not only wrong but counterproductive. He argued that Britain was essentially neutral about whether Northern Ireland remained part of the United Kingdom. The Irish problem was not British colonialism, he said, but the relationship between northern Unionists and nationalist Ireland. The republican answer was that Britain was not neutral and its presence was preventing the exercise of the self-determination to which the Irish people were entitled.

This intermittent dialogue was resumed last spring, Hume incurring much criticism for talking to the representative of terrorists while violence continued. And while Hume and Adams talked, other contacts were under way, between Dublin and the Unionists and between Dublin and London.

Last week, both Major and Reynolds insisted that the origins of the joint declaration lay in February 1992, when they first met at Downing Street and, in Reynolds' words, 'made a resolution to try and bring peace to Northern Ireland during our term of office'.

It may sound pious, but they meant it. With the help of Hume and ideas from the priests of the Clonard Monastery in Belfast, the first draft for a joint document was drawn up, Dublin now says. That initiative faded last November when the Irish general election diverted attention, but it was revived upon the arrival in office of Dick Spring as Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister in Reynolds' new coalition. If Major and Reynolds were keen for progress, the young Labour leader, anxious to be a modernising force in Ireland, was doubly so. In June, the Dublin government sent a new proposal to Downing Street. This led to extensive contact between the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Robin Butler, and Dermot Nally, the former Secretary to the Irish government who had been retained after his official retirement.

Whether this was leading anywhere is a matter for doubt, in the light of the Major-Molyneaux 'arrangement', but it was, at the very least, high-level dialogue.

Spring had another string to his bow, based not on dealing with republicans but on overtures to Unionists. Encouraged by Mayhew, he felt that a gesture on the Republic's constitutional claim to the North could bring reciprocal Unionist concessions and lead to a breakthrough. He and his staff were busy sounding out opinion north of the border.

This was the position as the summer ended. Major and the Unionists were close; the Government and the republicans had been in contact but had reached an early impasse; Dublin and London were looking for a way forward; Spring was in contact with Unionists and, quietly but studiously, Hume and Adams were trying to forge a common position.

It was a bewildering picture and, on the face of it, not one to inspire optimism, but it contained two invaluable elements: the lines of communication were open and a will for a solution existed. What was needed was a catalyst.

IN SEPTEMBER John Hume and Gerry Adams announced, to general surprise, that they had reached an important agreement. They did not make it public, but passed it to the government in Dublin. At first, it was accorded the coolest of receptions.

Spring, intent on his own agenda of contacts and wary of anything associated with Sinn Fein, seemed to regard the new document as dangerous. He appeared to set it to one side, and the word went out in Dublin that Hume had over-reached himself. John Major also rejected Hume-Adams, declaring firmly that the idea of talking to republicans turned his stomach (this was before his Government's surreptitious contacts with the IRA were exposed).

But Hume-Adams was, for nationalist Ireland at least, an idea whose time had come. John Hume refused to take rejection lying down and as he spoke of 'the best chance for peace in 20 years', people wanted to hear more. There is a deep well of trust for John Hume in Ireland. There was a tidal wave of public support - and a tidal wave of criticism of Spring and Reynolds.

What followed was cynically summed up by one Unionist source last week: 'Dick Spring saw John Hume assuming the mantle of the nationalist peace- maker and thought: 'I'm not going to let him get all the credit for this.' Albert Reynolds saw Dick Spring's six principles and thought: 'If Spring thinks this is worth doing, I better get in on the act.' Then John Major saw Reynolds and thought: 'If Reynolds thinks there's a Nobel peace prize on offer, I'd better have a bit of the action.' '

It may not have happened quite like that, but there is no doubt that the idea that a path to peace might exist proved powerfully infectious, and that policy was hastily readjusted, first in Dublin, where Dick Spring's 'six principles' caught the mood, and then in London. The six principles summed up Spring's views on dealing with Unionists, stressing the need for their consent to a united Ireland and offering movement on changes to the Republic's constitution. Another catalyst intervened: the terrorist outrages on the loyalist Shankill Road, where 10 died when IRA bombers attacked a crowded fish shop, and at Greysteel, where seven died when the Rising Sun public house was sprayed with bullets in revenge.

Public opinion was electrified. It was one of those moments when atrocity in Northern Ireland shocks everyone on both islands, and when the desperate call goes up: 'Something must be done.'

The change in John Major's rhetoric was dramatic. On 24 October, the day after the Shankill bombing, he told reporters that people in Ulster 'who over the years have seen their friends, their relatives, their families, murdered by IRA violence' would regard any concession to republicans as 'outrageous'.

But five days later, and following Spring's six principles, Major and Reynolds met in the margins of the Brussels summit and declared that if the IRA renounced violence 'new doors could open' and both governments would wish to respond 'imaginatively' to the new situation.

The road from Brussels, with a total of 18 draft documents exchanged between the two governments, was a bumpy one. Both governments were under conflicting pressures and yet they both realised that, having embarked on the process, the price of failure would be high.

Much of the negotiation was undertaken by Sir Robin Butler, the Cabinet Secretary, and Martin Mansergh, the Irish Prime Minister's adviser. The son of a noted academic historian, Mr Mansergh was educated at King's School, Canterbury, and Christ Church College, Oxford, leaving him with an English accent.

In London an ad hoc ministerial group already set up included Sir Patrick Mayhew, Douglas Hurd, Michael Howard, Kenneth Clarke and Malcolm Rifkind. After 29 October (the first Brussels summit) it was convened about six times, sometimes early in the morning, somethimes late at night and often at very short notice. There were a similar number of meetings between Major and Mayhew, while at the same time Major was consulting Molyneaux frequently, and keeping him constantly up to date with developments. (Ian Paisley, the leader of the Democratic Unionists was, by contrast, excluded. Major judged that no deal would be acceptable to the DUP leader.)

Leaks did not help. A Dublin paper got hold of an 'ultra- green' Irish document originally drawn up for talks with Northern Ireland parties, which caused outrage in Belfast. Then came the revelation that the British had been talking secretly to the IRA. There was absolute fury in Dublin, where nothing had been known of this. 'It was not just that they had had the contacts,' said an Irish source, 'it was the fact that they were doing it while lecturing us on the need to stay a million miles from Hume-Adams.'

By this time there was considerable doubt as to whether the second of three scheduled meetings between the two leaders would happen. The process was saved in a telephone conversation between Major and Reynolds on 1 December, and the talks went ahead at Dublin Castle that Friday with full teams on either side. There, after Irish fury had been vented - 'There was real political anger, but there was a sense that there was no point in dwelling on it' - the negotiations resumed.

The following weekend they met again in Brussels, although to the disappointment of the Irish, the British delegation was less high-powered, the most senior civil servant being Roderick Lyne, Major's foreign policy and Northern Ireland adviser. After the two leaders had met, Lyne talked to the Irish delegation for two and a half hours on Friday night. By this time the difference had been narrowed down to 19 points lettered 'A' to 'S'.

The next day there were, according to one senior British source, still 'four or five hard nuts to crack' - 'We had ticked off four or five and put another 10 into square brackets.' The atmosphere of the negotiations was 'tense', discussion uneven, the mood in both camps swung from optimism to pessimism.

Although Dublin had pushed for a recognition of the 'value' of the goal of Irish unity - a highly loaded phrase for Unionists - this was not in any of the later drafts. During the final week of negotiation documents went back and forward, Britain's suggested amendments underlined in dotted lines, Ireland's with a solid line. The final dispute centred on the Irish demand for mention of a political 'convention' which was eventually replaced by a reference to a 'forum for peace and reconciliation'.

'It was hardball all the time,' said one Dublin source. Negotiation is regarded as one of Major's strengths, but in Reynolds, a country businessman by background, he found a match. A British official was taken aback when Reynolds, after a fierce exchange, dismissed his friendship with Major, saying: 'Friendship is friendship, but business is business.'

Although at the weekend the mood was still precarious, by Tuesday there were signs that a deal was close. A group of Tory MPs from the South- west were forced to wait for their meeting with Major because he was on the phone to Reynolds. Their audience was abruptly ended after 45 minutes when Reynolds rang again.

The phone calls did the trick. The next morning, Wednesday 15 December, Albert Reynolds flew to London and shortly after noon, in an atmosphere crackling with tension, the joint declaration was published and the two prime ministers made their case.

At the heart of the document is one serpentine sentence which attempts to reconcile what was previously thought of as irreconcilable. Its aim is to satisfy the Sinn Fein demand for self-determination, while assuring Unionists that they have the right not to be forced into a united Ireland against their will.

It reads: 'The British government agree that it is for the people of the island of Ireland alone, by agreement between the two parts respectively, to exercise their right of self-determination on the basis of consent, freely and concurrently given, North and South, to bring about a united Ireland, if that is their wish.'

Molyneaux's Ulster Unionists, who had been so close to the negotiations, reacted to this with quiet caution. They were pleased by the exclusion of elements they most feared - any recognition of the 'value' of a united Ireland, any mention of joint sovereignty or an Irish convention. Paisley, inevitably, was opposed. Sinn Fein reserved judgement. So did the loyalist paramilitaries.

IT WILL take some little time to see whether the declaration will lay the foundation for a new beginning in Northern Ireland.

It is an anxious time for Unionists, who wonder whether peace really is on offer, and wonder too whether they are being asked to pay too high a price for it. On one level it arguably strengthens the union, for in the declaration both governments solemnly pledge that a united Ireland could only ever come about with the consent of a majority in Northern Ireland.

But it also has an unmistakable Anglo-Irish, or even all-Ireland, feel to it. And when Major said Unionists could stay in the United Kingdom for as long as they wished, he made them feel like lodgers rather than part of the family.

Unionism is instinctively anxious about Anglo-Irish agreements: the key question is whether that anxiety will build to hostility, and whether that will be expressed in violent form.

At Castlereagh council in Belfast on Thursday night, normal business was abandoned and Unionist councillors spent almost three hours expressing opposition. There was talk of 'forcing' Major to change his mind. The mayor declared: 'I'm getting fed up to the teeth with pussy-footing Unionists in Westminster.' A councillor ranted about 'mickey fenian pig-dogs'.

Elsewhere, more moderate Unionists are in two minds. A Presbyterian clergyman said: 'Well the union is still there all right, but it's shrouded in shamrocks now, isn't it?' A Unionist MP, asked whether the union was weakened, replied: 'In essence yes, in practice no.'

On the republican side, the IRA and Sinn Fein now face a dilemma. Their analysis was that Major would not have the bottle to address the issue of self-determination, and they were surprised when he did. Furthermore, he did so in a substantive and serious way, and one which has the approval and support of constitutional nationalism north and south. He recognised Irish self-determination, subject only to the operation of consent, and declared that Britain has no strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland.

There may now follow some weeks and months in which the republicans will seek to clarify points from the declaration and try to win concessions from both governments, but within a few months at most they will have to indicate whether the war stops or goes on.

Ending it would bring a whole new raft of problems: would all the foot-soldiers obey the order to stop? Is it possible that a movement based on militarism could adapt to politics? Have they the courage to contemplate finally laying aside the gun and to going naked, or at least unarmed, into the conference chamber?

Fighting on is an option, but the odds against a military victory for the IRA have been dramatically increased by the events of this week. The two governments have deliberately and jointly laid out their definitive position. It is that of self-determination coupled with consent, and the IRA must realise how slim are the chances of changing that by violence.

A decision to fight on would produce a wave of anger in nationalist Ireland: the IRA, and no one else, would shoulder all the blame for continuing bloodshed. The IRA has coped with much pressure in the past, but taking that road holds the prospect only of ever-growing isolation and ever-dwindling chances of victory.

Leading article, page 22

Reynolds profile, page 21

(Photograph omitted)