The real challenge now was how to bring the negotiations, imperfect as they were, from all the different Strands into one arena so that one agreement could be decisively negotiated. An interim deadline of 3 April 1998 was set for the independent chairs to produce a paper that would be a draft agreement for final negotiation. Mitchell held further private meetings with individual parties to explore their proposals before completing the draft. At this stage he was doubtful about the inclusion of specific ideas which might not obtain broad support, and parties were concerned that the draft might not reflect their ideas. Following its meeting with Mitchell, the SDLP was somewhat worried that he was not encouraging about its Strand One proposals on ‘parallel consent’ and other related safeguards in relation to decision-making and their proposal for a joint office of First and Deputy First Minister. He made it clear that, as with Strand Three, the Strand Two section of his paper was being prepared by the two governments.
Worry about Mitchell’s likely approach was replaced by profound concern and resentment when, on 30 March, Downing Street faxed its draft for Strand One to Hume and Trimble but to no one else. Anger was expressed in the strongest possible terms. There was no question as far as the SDLP was concerned of negotiating with a fax machine. The objection was not just the manner of delivery of such a paper. Its content reflected very little of the party’s thinking.
The sense that this was no way to manage serious negotiations was strengthened by the fact that Mitchell knew nothing of such drafts until told of them by the SDLP. When a subsequent Downing Street draft was sent on 2 April, a corrected or revised version followed within a couple of hours; and even Paul Murphy, the British Minister of State at the negotiations, and his officials were unaware of this when the SDLP went to discuss concerns with him.
The 3 April deadline for the Mitchell paper was missed because the governments had not finalised their Strand Two paper. Mitchell wanted to circulate the paper minus Strand Two but the other parties advised strongly against this for a variety of reasons but most importantly because the proposals needed to be considered as a complete package. While waiting for the Mitchell paper on 3 April and fending off Downing Street’s faxes, parties continued their own bilateral discussions. On the morning of 3 April the UUP and SDLP held a bilateral meeting to address some major issues of difference. The UUP was concerned about the idea of an executive model in Strand One as well as Strand Two as a whole and at this point the SDLP outlined its concept of the joint office of First and Deputy First Minister which had already been developed in the ‘homework club’. The UUP expressed working interest in the concept but declined the offer of a paper. Other contentious points included decision-making safeguards such as ‘parallel consent’. These were also points of difficulty for the Alliance Party. It was only in the final week that the SDLP came up with the conclusive answer to these points with the idea of electing the First and Deputy First Minister jointly by ‘parallel consent’.
When the Mitchell paper was circulated on the night of 6 April, only three days before the deadline for the end of the talks, there was an intense negative reaction from unionist parties and the Alliance Party to the Strand Two paper because they found the proposed cross-border links were too strong. Privately the SDLP, the only nationalist party negotiating in Strand One, was disappointed and worried about the Strand One proposals because only marginal consideration had been given to their ideas. When the two premiers arrived the UUP and Sinn Féin concentrated on Strand Two but negotiations also continued on prisoners, policing, equality, human rights as well as the other Strands.
There was therefore no collective or round-table negotiation as such. In all probability no one participant, not even the independent chair or either prime minister, knew everything that was going on throughout this period. It was not perfect traffic management but it beat the gridlock. Instead of the stalemate of a zero-sum game we now had a complex matrix of negotiations. Some participants were surprised – not all pleasantly – when they saw the aggregate outcome in the proposed final Agreement on 10 April. The Plenary session to formally table the Agreement was delayed as a result of discussion in the UUP delegation on whether to accept a package which did not resolve all their concerns. Meetings between party leaders and the prime ministers continued as problems were cross-checked and supplementary issues raised. Rumours and varying moods went round the building like waves as people were tired after a sleepless night, hungry, with no food in the building, and relieved, surprised, exhilarated or humbled with the anticipation of agreement.
Those final two weeks had seen the sort of constant and concentrated negotiation that was crucial. The role of the two prime ministers had been decisive in terms of negotiation and brokerage, but the role of the parties should not be underestimated. The patience and sensitivity of the independent chairs – not just George Mitchell but Harri Holkeri and John de Chastelain too, helped to facilitate all of this. Mitchell’s sense of purpose was matched by his sense of patient caution. He had all along talked of himself as ‘Humpty Dumpty – I can only jump once’. His instinct for the right time was acute, as demonstrated by his decision to call the plenary session at fifteen minutes’ notice on the evening of Good Friday.
- The negotiations will operate on the basis of consensus. If it appears to the Chairman, after a reasonable period of discussion, that there is no unanimity, he may follow one or more of the courses of action set out below: (a) consult with the participants, with a view to putting forward a solution that he believes will secure agreement; and/or, (b) invite the participants to set up a broadly representative working group, including nominees of both Governments (or of the British Government alone in the case of Strand One issues); and/or, (c) obtain the agreement of the participants to refer the matter to an agreed group of experts for advice, requesting a report within an agreed specified period.
- It will also be open to the participants, acting solely by agreement and only at their instigation, and subject to the provisions set out in paragraph 37 below, to refer the matter to the forum for consideration, requesting a report.
- If, after the participants have considered any further proposals arising from one or more of the courses of action set out above, there is no unanimity on a particular proposition, the Chairman may propose that negotiations proceed on the basis that the proposition has been approved by sufficient consensus, as defined in paragraph 34.
- Sufficient consensus may apply to all decisions taken in any format.
- A proposition would be deemed to have sufficient consensus when supported by participating political parties which, taken together, shall have obtained a majority of the valid votes cast in the elections held on 30 May 1996 and which between them represent a majority of both the unionist and nationalist communities in Northern Ireland respectively and which also constitute a majority of the participating political parties. With the exception of Strand One, both Governments must endorse the particular proposition for it to be deemed to have sufficient consensus.
- Where it does not prove possible to achieve either unanimity or sufficient consensus, the Chairman will work, in consultation with the participants, to remove obstacles to the reaching of agreement, or, with the agreement of the participants, may decide to move on to the next item on the agenda.
- The negotiations will proceed on the principle that nothing will be finally agreed in any format until everything is agreed in the negotiations as a whole. Subject to this principle, it would nevertheless be possible, solely on the basis of agreement among the participants, to proceed on the assumption of contingent agreement on any individual aspect of the negotiations.
(From the Rules of Procedure 29 July 1996)