In his memoirs, ‘A Journey’, published yesterday, the former British Prime Minister Tony Blair said he took “horrendous” chances and stretched the truth “past breaking point” as he dealt with unionists and republicans deadlocked over talks to restore devolved powers.
He admitted that politicians were obliged from time to time to “conceal the full truth, to bend it and even distort it” in the interests of bigger strategic goals.
He said Adams and McGuinness were “supreme masters of the distinction between tactics and strategy”, who, unlike the unionist leadership, were never challenged by their colleagues on their negotiating line.
“They knew the destination and they were determined to bring their followers with them, or at least the vast bulk of them,” he said.
Mr Blair revealed that as the Easter Week peace talks began in 1998 it became clear that he had “badly misjudged” unionist readiness to deal and he “realised” that Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimble would not be able to agree to the kind of North/South institutions envisaged by the two governments.
Arriving in Belfast, he said Ahern, struggling to deal with the death of his mother, agreed to make key concessions on the political institutions.
Blair described Ahern as “heroic”, smart, “cunning in the best sense” and, above all, “free from the shackles of history”.
Mr Blair goes on to describe the ebb and flow of the talks. “When Bertie told the Irish side -- for these purposes the whole spectrum of Irish opinion -- the concessions he’d made, they revolted.”
One of the key decisions that led to a breakthrough he attributes to then British Direct Ruler, Mo Mowlam, who when Sinn Fein threatened to walk away whittled the party’s long list of demands down to a small number of “crucial” ones, particularly the issue of IRA prisoners.
“Basically, she thought the issue was not of enormous consequences to unionism . . . She offered Sinn Fein the release of them all within a year.” Mr Blair agreed and told Mr Adams the prisoners would be released within a year.
However, after some of his key officials expressed deep reservations about the impact on British public opinion of allowing IRA prisoners out, he went back to try to renegotiate the deal with Gerry Adams. “In the end, I did something very ‘Tonyish’ and he did something very ‘Gerryish’: I privately assured him we would do it in one year if the conditions allowed, but, publicly and officially, it would be two. He agreed, and what’s more, never called in the promise or used it publicly to embarrass me.”
After various squabbles a deal was tantalisingly close but Mr Trimble could not sell it to his team.
At that stage Mr Blair came up with the idea of sending a letter to the unionist leader. “The letter guaranteed that if within the first six months of the Assembly, Sinn Fein didn’t deliver on decommissioning, we would support changing the provisions within the agreement to allow exclusion. It was very typical of the intricate nuance of the negotiations: we didn’t say we would exclude, we said we would support changing the agreement so as to exclude.”
When the unionist accepted the letter the deal was done. “The next hours passed in a blur. We were beyond exhaustion, light-headed almost. George Mitchell announced the agreement. Bertie and I gave statements. There was general applause. At long last I was released from the hellhole Castle Buildings had become.”
The scale of what had been achieved only hit Mr Blair as he left Belfast that Good Friday on a flight. “I somehow got on to the plane and took a call from the queen to congratulate me. I think until then I really hadn’t understood the enormity of the achievement. I thought, I bet she doesn’t do this often and indeed she doesn’t.”