News Analysis

Monday 22 September 2014

I feel hand of history upon my shoulder -- a hell of a soundbite

Published 23/01/2011 | 05:00

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Tensions among chief negotiators reach breaking point leading up to the Good Friday Agreement, in this extract from Alastair Campbell's Diaries Volume Two

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Monday, July 21 1997

Ireland was leading the news in the morning because of the Trimble meeting. . . TB was becoming more and more preoccupied with Northern Ireland. He felt that if Trimble showed more strength, he could blow out Paisley.

The problem was that the Irish government probably did tell Sinn Fein there would be no need for actual decommissioning, and we were saying the opposite to the Unionists. . . The problem was that Trimble was not really in charge of the show, and you sensed he was constantly worrying what they were thinking.

He had a naturally red face which turned redder and redder as the meeting wore on. He had a mildly priggish smile which got more priggish the more nervous he got. Jeffrey Donaldson [UUP MP] was the quietest but he spoke with considerable force. Taylor was quite languid. Maginnis was the ranter today. But he too could be subtle while being tough.

When we were discussing the decommissioning line, he said very nicely, but menacingly, 'I'm very worried that if we take that approach, it will be very damaging to you personally, David' . . . Donaldson said it was always the Unionists being asked to help out, and there was nothing to show for it. He said he had lost members of his family to the IRA.

'We understand these people. They will go back to violence any time they feel like it.'

Thursday, December 11

Adams and his team arrived 15 minutes early, and he did a little number in the street, where the media numbers were huge. This was a big moment, potentially historic in the progress it could lead to.

They came inside and we kept them waiting while we went over what TB was due to say. Mo and Paul Murphy were both there and Mo was pretty fed up, feeling she was getting shit from all sides. They were hovering around the lifts and were summoned down to the Cabinet Room . . .

I found McGuinness more impressive than Adams, who did the big statesman bit, and talked in grand historical sweeps, but McGuinness just made a point and battered it, and forced you to take it on board. Martin Ferris [Sinn Fein negotiator] was the most coldeyed of the lot. He really did emanate a sense of menace. Mo slipped me a note saying he had a very bad history.

Of the women, I could not work out whether they really mattered, or whether they just took them round with them to look a bit less hard. They were tough as boots all three of them . . . Ferris was the one who just stared. Mo got pissed off, volubly, when they said she wasn't doing enough . . .

Mo mentioned an escaped prisoner. Adams said: 'Good luck to him.' Mo snapped back 'That is not a very helpful comment.'

But there were flashes of humour. Mo slipped me a note saying she found GA sexier than MMcG.

On the way out GA took TB to one side, and clearly wanted to be able to brief they had had a one-on-one session. All he said was: 'Merry Christmas.' I said we needed to agree a briefing line. He said why don't we say we've agreed to withdrawal of all troops by February and a united Ireland by spring? Fine, I said, I like a good clear line.

TB roared with laughter. They were clearly trying to hang around and, added to their early arrival, exaggerate the length of the talks . . .

The three women went to the loo, and our security people were getting antsy at how long they were in there, while Jonathan and I chatted to GA and McG re holidays and Christmas and kids and stuff. Vera Doyle [Irish messenger at Number 10] was on duty and came over to chat to them, and within seconds McG was charm itself, checking out where she came from and where she went on holiday. Vera was clearly a fan, but said to them as they left 'Now you two just behave, and help out our man here.' . . .

TB said later McG might have had a point when he said the 'securocrats' did not really want to bring about a settlement . . .

Tuesday, April 7, 1998

Mitchell finally tabled his paper around midnight . . . On the plane (to Belfast) we went through the paper in some detail . . . TB was a bit fed up with it because he and Bertie had not actually negotiated all this, but Mitchell insisted it was all in there . . . I drafted a few lines, but he pretty much did his own thing. This is not a time for sound bites but I feel the hand of history upon my shoulder. Hell of a sound bite.

Wednesday, April 8

I got a message to go and see TB before I was even up. He was in the bath, and said he was worried. I knew he was worried anyway because he was playing the fool the whole time, putting on a thick Irish accent, pretending he was a newsreader announcing that Cherie was going to become a Protestant and he was going to speak with an Irish accent as part of a deal to secure peace in NI.

Bertie's mum had died and he was coming up for breakfast before then going back for the funeral . . . Paddy Teahon said Trimble was asking for the Holy Trinity to be replaced by the Almighty God in the Irish Constitution. Even Bertie managed a laugh.

Bertie said if he was exposed to either of them (Unionist leaders) too much today, he would be worried he would end up thumping them . . .

We left by helicopter for Stormont . . . The most important (meetings) were with the UUs, and they were also the most difficult. Trimble was trying hard, but he just had too many people at him. He would say something, and then find the others translating it into something harder. Then Trimble would nod his agreement to the revised version. TB was getting frustrated and angry as the day wore on.

[Jeffrey] Donaldson was being difficult, said it was all a charade being run by the Anglo-Irish secretariat. We were also a bit stuck without Bertie but he came back around 6.30, looking even more knackered than before. I felt really sorry for him. It was obvious the way he talked about her that he was close to his mother, and she was barely buried and he was back taking a whole load of grief from the UUs. They talked to him, and about him, with something close to contempt, and it was terrific the way he took it. TB was now getting very irritable and the surroundings were beginning to drive us all a bit crazy . . .

John Taylor suddenly signalled they were ready to do a deal. Bertie started, speaking very quietly, said it would be a great tragedy if we could not reach a deal now. Joe Lennon scribbled me a note saying DT had too many enemies for this to work, but the mood was fine.

It was when Taylor suddenly piped up -- 'There is room for manoeuvre here' -- that we thought there was a sign of change. Bertie had said before he would walk out if he started up on his usual record. He said he couldn't be arsed listening to it all again.

But this time Taylor was significantly different. It was the first time he had ever been anything remotely approaching positive . . . After the main trilateral, we had a long session with Adams and McGuinness and later with Adams alone. They were both very charming in their own way, also very clever, and always making points at various levels. I liked McG better of the two.

Whatever he had done in the past, there was a directness to him that I liked and he was driven by a genuine sense of grievance about the way people were forced to live. I guess Adams is too, but he also strikes me as more interested in his own place in the firmament, more a politician than a people's person.

TB said if we don't break it down tonight, we are in trouble, and suggested we get DT back in. He was getting tired too. 'I'll go fucking spare if he brings in Maginnis and the rest again.'

DT was a bit more hopeful. TB said we should not leave the building until we have Strand 2 tied up and agreed. But we did, about 1am, exhausted and not there yet. On the helicopter back to Hillsborough, TB just looked out of the window, his face tired and angry, occasionally shaking his head.

Thursday, April 9

Bertie was in OK mood considering and we had a load of small talk re Burnley and Man U. TB had been worried last night that BA was actually depressed but he seemed a lot better today. The plan on arrival was just for some nice clear pictures of TB and Bertie, with a few words, but David Andrews [Irish foreign minister] bounded in and buggered it up, interrupting the doorstep. TB did a couple of answers then cut it short and was livid when we got up to the office.

I said DA ballsing it up wasn't worth bothering with. There would be a lot worse to come during the day.

1.05pm TB ranting and raving because he wanted to see BA, who was locked in discussions in the SDLP office. There is not one clever person outside this fucking room . . .

When the Irish came in, I suggested to TB that he 'turn off the charm tap' and he start to get a bit heavier. The problem was they wanted clear Westminster legislation to set up implementation bodies; otherwise, said Paddy Teahon, it would be just like Sunningdale . . .

Bertie said on the one hand they are expected to change their Constitution -- to give up the claim to the North effectively -- and yet there is no 'on the other hand' of equal clarity . . . By prior arrangement, TB asked me what the reaction would be if we didn't do a deal. I said Bertie would be crucified.

'They think the other lot are mad anyway, but they think you guys are sane so it would be you that gets crucified if we fall apart over this.'

Teahon laughed his head off, but Bertie nodded quietly, and got the point.

Friday, April 10

3.37 TB spoke to Clinton. 'Where are we?' asked Bill. TB said we had been going non-stop for three days. We were close to a deal, and had been for some time. The problem is that every time we get close to a bottom line, a new one comes up . . .

Bill asked if TB wanted him to call. TB suggested he call Bertie and emphasise the big changes they have won here . . . Bill said there is nothing more important to me right now than this. Call me whenever, even if it means waking me up.

4.18 Bill had made some calls and said it was time to move for it.

4.30 Another Clinton call: 'Hell, I'd rather be on holiday with Kenneth Starr than hanging out with these guys.'

5.35 We agreed BC should call Adams, and we briefed he should set out how difficult the prisoners issue was, unless they signed up to the whole deal. Bill got the point straight away and was on the phone to him immediately. It felt, finally, like it was falling into place.

8.10 If you had to pin me down and ask me to explain how it suddenly came together, I couldn't, but by 8.10 I was in the press tent briefing that basically we had a done deal, that it was huge, historic, ginormous, all that stuff. I felt really quite emotional and had to hold myself together.

The whole thing nearly came unstuck over a fuck-up over the wretched implementation bodies, because by mistake the Irish-language promotion (Trimble's staff's fault) and export promotion (our fault) were back in the fucking list . . . TB said at one point 'We are dealing with the Afrikaner mentality. They're tired, they're scared and they're panicking.'

Monday Aug 17

Another extraordinary conference call with TB and Mo. The police chiefs [ Flanagan and Byrne] want to leave, the justice minister wants to leave and they cannot renegotiate because Bertie is in a meeting in Dublin. TB was pretty firm with her.

He said 'I'm very sorry, Mo, but I am going to have to press you and you are going to have to press them because the statement (she prepared with the police chiefs) is not adequate' . . . We then had the ludicrous situation of TB having to ask Mo for her fax number, and her shouting out 'Anyone out there who knows the fax number?' and then saying the officials had disappeared. It was the Mo manner that was fine when things didn't matter, but deeply irritating when they did. She sounded more and more exasperated.

'I'll say whatever you want, Tony,' she said, at which point TB exploded at her: 'It is not a case of saying what I want. It is a case of doing the right thing and then explaining it to the public, who may have cause to be concerned about recent events.'

She then lost the plot completely. 'You cannot do this to me. I'm sick of the long distance control. You are making it impossible for me. I can't do it any more.' 'Well, you're going to have to,' he said. 'Just calm down, Mo, we have to do this properly.' Ronnie Flanagan came on the line and was like a voice of reason and sanity.

He did not sound like a man trying to charge out of the door. TB took him through some of the changes and he sounded fine. But Mo was getting near hysterical.

TB said to her 'if you went out and read that statement as you read it to us earlier, you will be dead. I mean dead, totally out of the game. Nobody would take you seriously.' She said 'I'd rather be dead than carrying on like this. I don't care any more.' TB said 'Yes you do, and that is why we do the extra bit to get it right.'

Tuesday, August 25

On the flight back, (from Toulouse) . . . TB felt Bill C was in some genuine trouble but the only option for us was to stand by him. I asked CB if she would stand by TB if he got involved with a Monica Lewinsky. She said probably, but she would make his life hell.

TB said he was confident she would kick him straight out, and Fiona would do the same to me. CB was also complaining again that they were in real debt and it was ludicrous the things they had to spend money on without any official help . . .

Thursday, September 3

Bill Clinton was very friendly with all of us, but Hillary was pretty icy, and the more he tried to bring her in, the more rigid and fixed the smile became. She was clearly finding the whole Monica thing hard to bear and he was clearly still being punished . . .

Bill had a little catnap in the holding room, and looked pretty shattered when he woke up. Hillary looked tired too and there was nothing between them when they were together. He did his best, and chatted to her and what have you, but she was having none of it. Icy does not do it justice. This was the deep freeze but he was bearing it well . . .

We were briefed by one of Clinton's people on the walkabout and he referred to how we were meeting 'some of the fathers' of Omagh. Hillary cut in, 'And mothers,' cutting the guy right down . . .

TB said to me later he felt Bill was very down, but hiding it well, and also feeling very damaged. A role in the peace process meant a lot to him, for lots of different reasons. We flew to Armagh over some stunning scenery.

There was a big crowd waiting for them and the US team had told Bill he had been a bit down in his earlier speech and this was the one to get pumped up for. He did, and got the best reception yet.

Sunday Independent

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