Tony Blair warned Northern Ireland peace talks would ‘lose all credibility’ without progress

PA Images 1997 UK Prime Minister Tony Blair Ireland Taoiseach Bertie Ahern Downing Street
The meeting took place just weeks before the IRA renewed its ceasefire. Credit: PA Archive/PA Images

Tony Blair warned Bertie Ahern in July 1997 that the peace talks may “lose all credibility” if they did not move forward, archive files have revealed.

A meeting between the two leaders and senior Irish and British civil servants show some of the difficulties both governments faced when attempting to hammer out the process of the peace talks.

In the meeting, which took place in No 10 Downing Street in July 1997, Mr Ahern told his British counterpart that the Irish Government was not in the business of “dragging out the process”.

The meeting took place just weeks before the IRA renewed its ceasefire.

Mr Blair said he was determined to make the Northern Ireland peace talks inclusive, but said that Sinn Fein could only be included if there was a genuine ceasefire.

Bertie Ahern told his British counterpart that the Irish Government was not in the business of ‘dragging out the process’ Credit: PA

He said: “We have been trying to sort out the issues that are important in getting all-inclusive talks and also in regard to the marches.

“I was emphasising the degree to which we are determined to make the talks inclusive, so long as we do not have to compromise on basic principles.

“We have gone as far as possible. If there is a genuine ceasefire, they can be in. If they genuinely require clarification, that is OK but we cannot get bogged down in endless clarification.

“We are at the stage now, where if the talks process does not move forward, it may lose all credibility.

“As regards marches and the difficulties to which they give rise, it is important that the two governments keep close together and have proper dialogue at all times.”

Mr Ahern replied: “For our part, we believe that the more closely together we act, the better.

“The Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Secretary of State will continue to meet in the talks context.”

Mr Ahern said that the Irish government was not in the “business of dragging out the process” but added that clarification would “genuinely, be useful”.

“We want the process to be inclusive, with all on board,” he added.

“For that we need a ceasefire from the IRA, an absolute end of violence. We believe that if a reply is sent to the second letter that has come from Sinn Fein, it may be very important.

“There are two important, thorny issues – decommissioning and prisoners and we had a lengthy discussion on these.

“I think we are involved in a meaningful process (ie vis-a-vis republicans) and that there is a real opportunity there but if all goes wrong, we also agree that the two governments will have to pick up things.”

Mr Ahern said he was concerned about a letter from Gerry Adams, particularly the element of “throwing in the kitchen sink”, but added that a second letter from Martin McGuinness offered a better basis for a “carefully considered response”.

Mr Blair went on to flag a number of issues, including punishment beatings on which he said there had been no progress.

Mo Mowlam, the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, added: “The grim reality is that they have used these to keep their people occupied to keep their hands in.

“We also have the problem that we have allowed the loyalist parties to be in and remain in the talks, even though their linked paramilitaries were engaged in punishment beatings all the time.”

Mr Ahern said: “I have always taken a strong line against-punishment beatings and the like. People in Nationalist areas say there is no policing in those areas and that the paramilitaries play a role in controlling anti-social behaviour.

“But I certainly do not condone such beatings.”

Sir John Chilcot said that after the 1994 ceasefire, there was a “slow outreach” of policing into nationalist communities.

“It is important that both communities do not get hooked on social control by paramilitaries,” he added.

The material can be viewed in the National Archives in file 2022/84/3

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