Blair cleared the table of the wreckage of past negotiations and deprived the republican movement of excuses for violence. He accepted an independent investigation into Bloody Sunday, when fourteen unarmed civilians were shot dead by British soldiers in January 1972. Within a fortnight Blair visited Northern Ireland to deliver a keynote speech which signalled that the Union was safe – probably for generations. This also helped sustain the loyalist ceasefire which had held since October 1994 despite the IRA’s return to violence.
There has been a remarkable consistency of policy between successive British governments on the key concept of consent – that Northern Ireland should determine its own destiny. Furthermore, the idea that a British government should become a ‘persuader’ to edge unionists towards Irish unity was never accepted. Blair maintained a ban on ministerial contact with Sinn Féin but announced that talks with officials would open. He stuck to this despite the murder of two unarmed police officers in Lurgan by the IRA just weeks before Sinn Féin was re-admitted to multi-party talks after its declaration of a second ceasefire in July 1997.
On the day that Sinn Féin joined the all-party talks, Trimble’s most vociferous opponents within the unionist camp – the DUP and Robert McCartney’s UKUP – walked away from the negotiations. Trimble symbolically walked in with the UDP and PUP leaders. Both events effectively gave Trimble political cover to increasingly engage with republicans.
As what had become multi-party talks proceeded, UUP negotiators moved from proximity talks with Sinn Féin to direct bilateral negotiations. These unionists found it easier to take part in talks that involved Sinn Féin because technically they were remaining in talks that had been going on for many months rather than entering new talks with Sinn Féin.
When Trimble won the UUP leadership in 1996 he was widely perceived to be a hardliner who would be incapable of doing a deal with the nationalists. Republicans apparently calculated that he would not stay in negotiations and that unionist intransigence would be punished by the British and Irish governments imposing a deal over the heads of unionists. But Trimble stayed and eventually the Belfast Agreement was made and ratified by a massive majority of voters throughout Ireland as a whole.
The Mitchell Principles
Six principles proposed by the International Body on Decommissioning. Acceptance of them could be taken to indicate a commitment to non-violence. The principles were adopted by all parties as a test for entry into the talks. The relevant passage of the International Body’s Report reads:
- ‘Accordingly, we recommend that the parties to such negotiations affirm their total and absolute commitment:
- To democratic and exclusively peaceful means of resolving political issues;
- To the total disarmament of all paramilitary organisations;
- To agree that such disarmament must be verifiable to the satisfaction of an independent commission;
- To renounce for themselves, and to oppose any effort by others, to use force, or threaten to use force, to influence the course or the outcome of all-party negotiations;
- To agree to abide by the terms of any agreement reached in all-party negotiations and to resort to democratic and exclusively peaceful methods in trying to alter any aspect of that outcome with which they may disagree; and,
- To urge that ‘punishment’ killings and beatings stop and to take effective steps to prevent such actions’.