David Andrews: The night a tired Blair snapped at me during Good Friday stand-off
Published 24/04/2013 | 17:00
THERE have been tomes written about the Good Friday Agreement so in one small article I can only record a few small personal memories of the period.
My first involvement in Northern Ireland was in the early talks of 1992. That was when the indomitable Patrick Mayhew (who claimed west Cork ancestry) and his junior minister Jeremy Hanley (son of the comedian Jimmy Hanley) were involved.
The great difficulty of these talks arose from the fact that the Unionists, and particularly the DUP, didn't want to be involved. The latter seemed to be appalled that they were happening at all.
My abiding memory is of one evening meeting a rather haggard-looking Mr Mayhew plodding along a corridor in Stormont after a meeting with Paisley. He exploded: "The man is mad – he's mad. He's like a baby in a high chair throwing his dinner on the floor and waiting for someone, anyone, to pick it up."
What I remember of the subsequent talks is dominated by some of the many extraordinary people involved. We were lucky in the chairman – the calm but determined Senator George Mitchell, who was hugely committed to reaching a workable conclusion.
Ian Paisley had loosened up a bit by then, but he still couldn't resist intoning his mantra 'no Pope here' – but this humourously in relation to Martha Pope, Mr Mitchell's private secretary.
Another 'bon mot' from Mr Paisley came when someone, having heard the news that the tumour of Pope John Paul II was benign, decided to relay this news to Big Ian. The reply was: "Well, if it is, it's the only bit of him that's benign."
I was fond of Mo Mowlam and got on very well with her. Yes, she was a bit 'informal', but extremely hard-working. However, the Unionists disliked Mo. There was a strain in some strands of Unionism that was quite misogynist. There was also some sneering at the Women's Coalition, who they unkindly liked to refer to as the WCs.
As we came to the crucial stages of the talks, Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair attended and this made a tremendous difference.
Bertie was extraordinary in that he could 'go on' forever. I think some of the participants thought they could talk us down, but they hadn't reckoned with Bertie. He listened and listened and talked and talked and never gave up.
I got on better with some people than others – sometimes with unlikely people. I got on well and established good lines of communication with Gusty Spence; also David Ervine, for whom I had a lot of admiration. Both men have now sadly passed on.
I found Martin McGuinness easier to get on with than Gerry Adams. There was a wariness and coldness about Mr Adams that didn't endear him to me. On one occasion, when the talks had moved for a few days to Dublin Castle, we had an informal supper at 9pm after the talks.
A buffet had been organised and there were about 12 circular tables with no place names. I arranged for Mo, Mr Mitchell and the three members of the Arms Decommissioning Board to be directed to a table where I would join them. When I arrived with Mo and sat down, there were exactly 10 at the table, including John Hume.
A while later, I saw Mr Adams arrive, flanked as usual by four or five followers. There were many tables free and he was told that it was free seating. He stood and surveyed the scene. He then called a waitress and directed her to get two extra chairs and put them at our table. We all squashed up to accommodate him. Nobody commented, but the conversation suddenly became very wary.
To say the final days of the talks were laden with tension would be an understatement. By Holy Thursday, no agreement had been reached but Mr Mitchell was determined that we wouldn't fail for want of another day so we continued through the night. People became tired and testy.
At one stage – about 2am – Mr Blair caught me by the arm. He asked me if I had seen Mo. I said: "Yes, but not recently." "Don't be smart with me," he snapped. He was exhausted and no doubt the 'hand of history' was on his mind.
At this stage, David Trimble was under enormous pressure from his party. They, of course, had much to lose and were fearful. To Mr Trimble's credit, he stayed the pace while his colleague Jeffrey Donaldson stormed out. I admired Mr Trimble for his courage.
When agreement was reached on Good Friday, there was great relief but no triumphalism. The mantra all through the talks was that 'nothing was agreed until everything was agreed' and that was vital to allow discussions on subjects that people weren't comfortable with.
Of course, there are still tensions and indeed hatreds in Northern Ireland, but it is a far better place for people to live and work in.
I believe that as long as many people continue to distance themselves from each other as Catholic or Protestant, through education, housing, etc, this will be difficult to eradicate.
David Andrews is a former Fianna Fail Minister for Foreign Affairs
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