In their own words: The problematic task of selling the Belfast (or Good Friday) Agreement to a sceptical middle ground

There will be lots of programmes (by many organisations are, including other parts of the BBC beyond Northern Ireland) on the Belfast Agreement. But David Kerr and Conall McDevitt’s passionate debate on The View (23.04) sets the context well.

Each belong to a successor generation to Trimble and Hume respectively and both were intimately familiar with the detail of how the GFA was hammered out and by whom. Both played a key role in actively selling it. Here’s a transcript of their dialogue:

David Kerr: I certainly think that both the British and Irish governments at the time could’ve done more for David Trimble in the immediate years that followed the Good Friday Agreement. I felt that Tony Blair threw David Trimble under a bus in 1999 because instead of continually demanding decommissioning from both loyalists and republicans, they took the easier avenue, which was to put Trimble under pressure and insist that he set up the first Executive before any decommissioning had happened. I think that for us at that time meant we lost the trust of the unionist electorate. A lot of unionist people were just hanging in there politically in their support for the process. But once Trimble dropped the ‘no guns no government’ line, there was a number of people in the middle ground of unionism asking, ‘well, where does this stop?’ And, of course, we’d gone in for eight weeks, it was collapsed and then we went in and out. What changed everything was 9/11. This was a completely external event which no one could have predicted. But when 9/11 happened in 2001 Irish America said to the IRA, ‘guys, it’s over, you’re going to have to give up the guns’. And that changed everything for us.

Mark Carruthers: That was a game changer.  I think maybe what was also a game changer was the fact that people got into room together and they got to see the whites of each other’s eyes. I just I’m I want to bring in Mark’s [Simpson] interview with Gerry Adams. It was fascinating as he tells that story about the first time he met David Trimble was to face in a Gents toilet. And then he goes on to reflect on the nature of their relationship as the years went on.  And then that strange line about realising only lately, only actually after his demise how brave David Trimble had been. It’s hard to understand how it took him so long.

Mark Simpson: There are two ways of looking at that.  There’s the way, ‘really Gerry Adams? Really, were you not watching the demise of the Ulster Unionist Party, or were you not watching the anti-Agreement rallies, were you not watching David Trimble being hunted on the streets of his own constituency?’ I think infairness to Gerry Adams what he was saying he didn’t quite realise the extent of it and maybe he wouldn’t be watching BBC Newsline or UTV Live every night but I think the other side, and shame on me I didn’t ask him, I think what it shows you is how obsessed he was with keeping the Republican movement together.

Mark Carruthers: He does suggest that in the interview: ‘I was so busy focusing my own on my own problems that I wasn’t thinking about other things’ and that’s really interesting isn’t it?

Conall McDevitt: That’s why they weren’t a central actor on Good Friday. It should be remembered Sinn Féin withheld judgement. We would not have this society we live in today had Sinn Féin or the DUP been a central actor. Neither of those two political movements would have had the capability to imagine or deliver the new beginning for Northern Ireland.

Mark Carruthers: Was it not also clever for Gerry Adams to point out in that conversation with Mark that he didn’t want to repeat the mistakes made by Michael Collins in the early part of the [C20] century, who signed up to a deal in Downing Street without going back to Ireland. He’s saying on the day we didn’t sign up to take it to our death.

Conall McDevitt: Gerry Adams was not then, is not now and, because of his age, will never be the leader of any argument. Okay, he was the leader of a political party that at the time did not enjoy a particularly strong political support. Yes, he was backed by a paramilitary organisation that had guns and were lethal and had the ability and were willing to kill. But let’s not draw historic equivalents. I mean the revisionism that kickedoff in the past decade from Provisional Republicanism has been breath-taking.  And it’s breath-taking for several reasons. First, it’s incorrect, it’s a load of balls. Second, it’s actually just a denial of where we are as an island today. It does no service to rewrite our history to try and reframe ourselves in some sort of romantic Republican notion. The route to a united Ireland is not through the republicanism of 1916 or the nationalism of 1969, it’s through a reimagined place which does not speak to anything that Gerry Adams has ever written about.

Mark Carruthers: So when you look back on it are you saying Gerry Adams was a dealmaker or not? Was Martin McGuinness a dealmaker or not?

Conall McDevitt: Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness became deal makers three or four years later but they were not dealmakers in the context of this conversation in 1998. Absolutely not.

David Kerr: I’ll come in there. They didn’t take anything to do with Strand One. I don’t know what level of detail they get into on Strand Two with the Irish government, all we do know is that when the Irish agreed Strand Two on north-south relations with the Ulster Unionists late in the early hours of the Thursday morning of that final week Sinn Féin were so incensed at how that had shrunk down to twelve “areas for cooperation”that they threatened to walk out. What actually kept them in was promises on prisoners. They then produced this shopping list, and Bertie Ahern actually referred to it last week, with fifty nine things on it. But they weren’t significant players in the constitutional structural or architectural stuff that the SDLP and UUP were.It’s important to remember that. I look at what Sinn Féin signed up to in 1998 and the constitutional, and you know the distance they travelled to sign up to the consent principle, to going back to Stormont, to the StrandTwo structures and Strand Three, and a vague review into policing. Effectively on Good Friday all they really got was prisoners and ambiguity around decommissioning. But they didn’t have to worry about selling that deal to their electorate or their sceptical Republican base because Ian Paisley sold it to them for them.

Mark Carruthers: Do you think so?

David Kerr: That’s what happened.

Mark Carruthers: Do you really think that the DUP’s rejection of the deal helped Republicans?

David Kerr: The hysterical reaction and nature of anti-Agreement Unionism in the aftermath of Good Friday is what allowed Sinn Féin to get away without having to sell the Agreement to the Republican grassroots,and I suspect an awful lot of those people have never even read the Agreement. But through the passage of time that has been shaped and in the telling of the story it has been made out that somehow David Trimble compromised his Unionism to sign up the Good Friday Agreement. He didn’t. The only thing we compromised on, at the end of the day, was around prisoner releases and the decommissioning language: that was the big move for us. The constitutional piece? If you had spoken to David Trimble on the Thursday evening, as far as we were concerned, with Strands One, Two and Three, we were delighted.

Conall McDevitt: It’s for another podcast to talk about the referendum campaign, because there’s stories there. But both loyalist paramilitarism and the republican movement were the most damaging elements of that campaign. We had the parading of the Balcombe Street gang at the RDS and then we had the parading of Loyalist paramilitaries at the Ulster Hall. So we had to go and invent another image, which finally came off.  It was a beautiful image and Bono made it happen.

Mark Carruthers: There were another a few involved but the two of you were very involved.

Conall McDevitt: Tim Attwood is missing from this troika. When we had to sell the idea to Mr Kerr here it was one of the most interesting and bizarre conversations in my life telling him that we had U2 and we’re going to have a concert and then we just get the two lads, John and David,  to do it.

Mark Carruthers: And I think I’m right you’re saying that you reckon that that image delivered about 100,000 votes. Does it get it over the line as far as unionism is concerned?

David Kerr: Absolutely.  In the final week, and Conall has touched on it, we had the Balcombe Street gang paraded to another meeting of Sinn Féin rank and file. We had the loyalist show of strength in the Ulster Hallwith Michael Stone and all these people from Loyalist Paramilitary organisations.  The images that were going out around the Agreement at that time was basically that this was throwing the Maze gates open and letting all these people out.  Nobody was talking about the future, the political architecture or anything else,so when Conall and Tim phoned me up with the idea I was stunned at first, but then I instantly knew it was a brilliant idea and that if we got that image of Trimble and Hume that would be the defining image.

Conall McDevitt: I can tell you that whenever John Hume looked out at two and half thousand or however many 6th formers we stuffed into the Waterfront Hall that night, he had a little moment and it was basically ‘you better not have caused something awful to happen here, I am not convinced of the merits of it’. But the three of us knew that we had to get an image, we had to create a picture that would be in the history books.

Mark Carruthers: And it did. It went global on the 24 hour news stations.

David Kerr: It was on the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald.

Conall McDevitt: It’s in our kids history books today. The image that represents the Good Friday Agreement is a picture of a rockstar, the leader of Unionism and the leader of Nationalism: the middle ground.

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