True, Blair did not do it on his own. Some of the groundwork had been done by previous Tory administrations. George Mitchell had laboured mightily for the best part of two years. Mo Mowlam had injected her own sense of purpose since her appointment as Secretary of State. In the end it took the combined efforts of Blair and his Irish counterpart Bertie Ahern to push the parties the last few yards towards an accommodation. Without Blair, his style, his commitment, his tireless energy and enthusiasm, it would not have been achieved.
Northern Ireland involves an overlapping network of allegiances which create a three-dimensional problem. Any approach to a solution requires movement on three points simultaneously. To keep the parties in play, it is important not to make a move to placate one which would result in another walking out. Policy-making in three dimensions has the complexity of Rubik's cube.
The Northern Ireland problem has been described as that of a double minority - Unionists, a majority in Northern Ireland, but potentially a minority on the island as a whole; nationalists, a local minority, but potentially part of a national majority. As a result both parties exhibit at the same time the worst features of both - the fear and insecurity of a minority and the arrogance and insensitivity of a majority.
Another way of looking at Northern Ireland is as the place where Britishness and Irishness overlap - a territory occupied by both British and Irish, both of whom want to preserve their links, their identity and their culture. Unionists fear being sucked into a united Ireland against their will; nationalists fear either integration with the rest of the United Kingdom, which would cut them off from Ireland, or, even more, a return to the subservient status they had under Stormont.
The problem therefore has been to find a constitutional package that would contain the Britishness of the Unionists and the Irishness of the nationalists, and would make both secure in their identity. To reassure the Unionists, the border must be made secure; to accommodate the nationalists, it should be permeable.
This was the basis of the three-stranded format in the talks: arrangements for governing Northern Ireland, a North/South body, and East/West links. Nationalists and republicans desire the second to the exclusion of the other two. Unionists want them without any links with Dublin.
In the end a compromise was reached. All parties came away with something, all paid a price. Sinn Fein has perhaps less in terms of its initial demands than the others - no prospect of a united Ireland in the immediate future and no free-standing North/South body. Unionists had secured a principle of consent to any change in the status of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom, a Northern Ireland Assembly, and a Council of the Islands, but had had to accept a significant North/South body and the presence of Sinn Fein in a local power-sharing administration. Sinn Fein and the other paramilitary parties achieve substantial release of prisoners, and a review of the police and criminal justice system. All have achieved a commitment to human rights, an equality agenda and commitment to social and economic growth.
So far so good - but will it work? Both Adams and Trimble will have trouble with their different constituencies.
The immediate programme requires parallel referenda, north and south, on 22 May, to be followed by elections to a Northern Ireland Assembly on 25 June. This would lead to the setting up of a shadow administration which would prepare the way for the North/South bodies and for the transfer of devolved powers back to local politicians.
Of course the referenda will not take place in a vacuum. Each will provide problems of a different sort. There will most likely be on both sides violent opposition by violent men. On the political front David Trimble has a fight on his hands. The comprehensive endorsement by his party executive which enabled him to finalise the deal has been a source of strength. However, even at the last minute, he had to override division in his negotiating team. He still has to face the 800-strong Unionist Council, the body in the past which saw off O'Neill and Faulkner when they went too far down the road of reconciliation. Already four of his parliamentary colleagues have entered a written note of dissent and the others may not all be totally dependable. Outside the camp, Paisley and McCartney, who had withdrawn from the talks with murmurs of Munich and appeasement, are preparing to campaign vigorously to overturn the agreement. Among other things this will be a struggle for the heart and soul of Unionism and for the leadership. Trimble will have the support of the loyalist parties (even though they may have their own difficulties). As former paramilitaries and convicted prisoners, they have a street cred which Paisley lacks - they undercut his constituency and deprive him of foot soldiers.
On the nationalist side John Hume is the key figure. The begetter of the process which challenged the logic of republican violence, he brought Sinn Fein in from the cold and invented the three-strand concept. He has an important validating role: his endorsement will be good enough for most nationalists, for people in the south and in America.
A recent poll in Northern Ireland indicated that 77 per cent would vote in a referendum for any agreement backed by the parties. Politicians will reflect however that Irish voters have a habit of saying one thing to a pollster and doing something quite different in the polling booths.
Parties will be looking for a high level of endorsement - perhaps as high as 75 per cent - to ensure majority support in both communities. Nationalists are more likely to be supportive than Unionists and only a high vote in a high turn-out could be sure to reflect sufficient consensus in a Protestant/Unionist community.
Bertie Ahern too will have his problems in a referendum in the South. There, a yes vote is important to isolate the men of violence and remove any vestige of legitimacy from an IRA campaign. His main problem will be in securing approval to the changes in those articles of the constitution which lay claim to Northern Ireland. These will be reformulated as an aspiration, subject to the consent of the majority in Northern Ireland and balanced by a parallel amendment to the Government of Ireland Act. This strikes at the heart of republican theology; and since the constitution was drafted by De Valera, it is regarded as both holy grail and holy writ. Ahern will have backing of all other parties in the Dail but his trouble will be with his own grass roots and republican die-hards.
Again there is poll evidence that a balanced and fair package on Northern Ireland would be supported by four voters out of five in the Republic.
The other compelling memory is of Sunningdale 25 years ago when the Council of Ireland was over-sold, Faulkner could not deliver his party, and the arrangements were brought down by an industrial stoppage. The difference this time is that over 2,000 people have died in the meantime. Many of those who brought down Sunningdale wonder if it was worth that price and few would argue that the present proposals were so unsatisfactory as to justify, or bring about, another two decades of killing. Last time, too, the people who had actually been fighting were outside the process, this time they are in it. This time the Northern Ireland politicians have been deeply involved at all stages, the work has been done almost in public and there are few surprises.
The biggest difference is the stability of the British government. Heath fell six weeks after Faulkner took office in 1974, and his successor had little commitment to the plan. Blair looks good well into the next century and is likely to want to keep the lustre on his triumph. The strongest guarantee is the commitment of the parties to fight for what they have agreed to and the burning desire of the overwhelming (and hitherto silent) majority of ordinary people on both sides for peace, stability and a chance to bring up their children.
Dr Maurice Hayes was Northern Ireland Ombudsman from 1987 to 1992.Reuse content