How the deal was done
How Ian Paisley deserves credit for what happened, how Peter Hain lost the plot, how Martin McGuinness and Peter Robinson tied up the loose ends. Gerry Adams, the originator of the peace process, tells how the end game played out. By Gerry Adams
28 March, 2007
Ian Paisley is the one who deserves the credit for what he did on 26 March. It is my view, as regular readers of this column will know, that he was in the mind to do a deal for some time now. But he had difficulties. Part of Sinn Féin's strategy was to remove those difficulties. Or to put it another way, to close down every option so that the democratic way became the only way.
It was difficult to get the governments in London and Dublin on board for this, or, to be more accurate, for all aspects of this. They understandably have their own view, their own objectives and their own needs. And also being governments, they have a desire to be in charge or to appear to be in charge. On top of this the relationship between the Fianna Fáil/PD coalition and Sinn Féin has not been good for some time now, which is unfortunate. Electoralism rules in Government Buildings! Na PD abú.
So the build-up to the 26 March event was shaped by dynamics within the DUP, and by Sinn Féin's insistence that 26 March was an immovable deadline. A few days before the four executive parties were to meet with the British Chancellor Gordon Brown, Sinn Féin was advised that there were considerable difficulties within the DUP leadership.
My own view was that whatever the truth or otherwise of this, there was no way that we could countenance any relaxation of the 26 March date for devolution. All negotiations run into turbulence as they reach a point of decision.
The British however, or at least Peter Hain, appeared to be buying into the DUP difficulties scenario. When the Sinn Féin delegation arrived in London late on the Wednesday night, he and his officials joined us in our London hotel. We had to take account of the DUP problems, he said. An earlier DUP meeting with Tony Blair had not gone well. It appeared that Paisley was on his own.
I had earlier received a similar account of this meeting from Jonathan Powell. So I wasn't surprised. Peter Hain then went on to outline ‘the plan'. He said that he would devolve to the political institutions on 26 March but he asked us to agree that Sinn Féin ministers would accept “a self-denying ordinance not to exercise [our] ministerial authority until May”.
He gave us a paper with a series of measures that he proposed our ministers should agree to. These included ministers agreeing not to announce any new policy initiatives or actions in relation to their portfolios; no ministerial visits unless agreed by the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, and officials would run the departments. And there was also to be an Easter recess from 29 March to 8 May for the Assembly. Six weeks off. A long Easter holiday – just what was needed to boost public confidence in politicians.
I laughed uproariously as Mr Hain tried to plamás us into accepting this clever wheeze. We told him in no uncertain terms that this wasn't on. When he and his team of officials left, we ordered soup and sandwiches, charged it to his bill, and considered our next move. It was obvious we had a need to be sensitive and sensible about the DUP's difficulties. But we could not accept diminution of ministerial authority.
We also felt that this was no way to do business. The Brits – hardly neutral players – going back and forth between us and the DUP with pieces of paper could unintentionally or otherwise exacerbate difficulties.
The next morning in 11 Downing St, the SDLP, the UUP, the DUP and Sinn Féin met in advance of the meeting with Gordon Brown. I made the point that we weren't a very cohesive group and that the meeting should be split into two parts. We had already proposed this to the Brits. The first part should be for us all to listen to the British Chancellor and the second part to respond. A half-hour adjournment would allow us to prepare our response. When the adjournment came I proposed that Ian Paisley chair our group. He agreed and seemed pleased to be asked.
Under his tutelage we did our first business together. We each agreed to focus on specific aspects of the economic package so that when Gordon Brown returned, each party in turn spoke to particular matters. Ian Paisley was very good-humoured and focused. Nothing in the demeanour of the DUP delegation suggested difficulties in their ranks.
When the meeting finished Mitchel McLaughlin, Bairbre de Brún and Mary Lou McDonald went out to speak to the media while Martin McGuinness and I went into Number 10 to meet Tony Blair and Peter Hain. Our meeting there was fairly laid-back and ranged over the DUP situation and the paper given to us the previous night by Peter Hain. Blair essentially accepted our rejection of this but he appeared to be worried that the DUP needed ‘something' for that evening's officer board meeting. We offered to meet Ian Paisley and Peter Robinson.
I told Tony Blair that we would behave sensitively and sensibly but he needed to recognise that there were elements in the DUP, like Jim Allister, who were totally opposed to powersharing and who would not do business with Sinn Féin under any circumstances. He and his like could not dictate the agenda.
Peter Hain phoned me later that evening and pressed for some other model or formula along the lines of the self-denial ordinance. I told him to forget it. He phoned me again early the next morning with more of the same and told me that Paisley's officer board “went badly”.
Paisley was going back to see Blair. I had to go to Dublin that day so Martin went to see Hain. He told Martin that the earlier paper was “off the table” and then gave him another paper which was essentially a watered-down version of what had gone before. We rejected that also and the rest of the day was spent in telephone communications, between us and Downing Street until the DUP arrived there and their meeting with the British PM commenced. I went to bed.
Tony Blair phoned me at 9am on Saturday. He said the DUP were not going to nominate on Monday. This was the unanimous view of the officer board. They were prepared to go into government in May and wanted London to introduce emergency legislation to permit this. He told them that he could only do this if Sinn Féin agreed.
I conveyed all this to Martin in Derry. We agreed that I would go to the opening session of the Ard Chomairle before travelling north to meet with him while he went to Belfast to begin the weekend's negotiations. Saturday morning was a nice morning. I went for a walk along Parnell Street to stretch my legs and to take the air. The city centre was only starting to face the day. The women in Moore Street were setting out their stalls. There was a sense of spring in the air.
Back in Ard Oifig I briefed our own officer board. We agreed that we could only facilitate the DUP if Ian Paisley was prepared to make an unequivocal public statement of commitment to be part of the political institutions in terms acceptable to us. An hour's discussion at the Ard Chomhairle endorsed that position. It was my view that he would have to do this at a joint press conference but I did not mention this. I wanted to discuss it with Martin first.
And so back to Belfast and another long weekend of to-ing and fro-ing. It's too close to the events to detail this part of the negotiations at this time. Suffice to say, good work was done. Particularly by Martin McGuinness. Our resolve to be sensible and sensitive was tempered with our need to have any agreement articulated in a clear, public and unconditional way. The only possibility of accommodating the DUP in the way they wanted was if they made their presentation in the way that we wanted. This meant a joint press conference, an event and words that did not need interpreted or parsed. Citizens looking at their television screens know immediately that something different, something new and definitive had happened.
By Monday morning the DUP had agreed to this but at 9.30am, there were still a small number of outstanding issues. Martin and Peter Robinson resolved these matters and by 10.45am, we agreed that the meeting could proceed.
There was then the matter of what size the delegations should be. We had put half-a-dozen of our own people on stand-by. But as the clock ticked towards 11am, the DUP delegation grew in size. That suited us anyway. But gathering up extra people delayed us. So that my first words to Ian Paisley were an apology. For being late. He was in good form. Very respectful, gracious, and cordial. I suggested that he should chair the meeting. He agreed and said we should keep it fairly informal. We had already agreed an agenda and we went through this for an hour.
The points covered included the current situation, the need for an economic package from the British government, the work of the next few days, the preparation necessary for government on 8 May and the water-rates issue.
In the course of my opening remarks, I said that there were many challenges and difficulties facing us but I thought we were capable of dealing with them. There were many people depending upon us to do so. There were big issues which, at this point, we could not agree upon, but there were other issues that I felt were common ground, for example, the huge issue of disadvantaged communities, the scourge of drug abuse, and under-age drinking. We need to tackle poverty. The lack of social housing and deep difficulties facing rural communities. There was an urgent need for a suicide prevention strategy. I also said we needed to tackle the issue of sectarianism. We had all come a very long way. And this was the start of an entirely new beginning for all our people.
Ian Paisley said that he felt that we could tackle these issues, that we both represented working-class people and that both sections suffered similar problems.
Martin McGuinness and Mary Lou McDonald also spoke in the course of our discussions, as did Peter Robinson and other DUP representatives. The atmosphere throughout was relaxed. Then at 12 noon the live TV feed was linked up for the media. Ian Paisley looked at his script. He took a wee sip of water and began to read. The rest is history.