The art of the deal: Tony Blair on the nice places to go for difficult peace talks

Tony Blair said he believed the late Ian Paisley moved on a peace agreement because his community wanted it. Credit: PA

Sir Tony Blair has spoken of his involvement in the Good Friday Agreement, detailing how he worked on the deal and how the talks took place in a "nice place... for difficult business".

In a wide-ranging interview on ‘Eamonn Mallie Face to Face with…’ the ex-Labour Party leader talks of his early years and what he learned from his parents, to holidaying in Ireland and the key moments working on the agreement and beyond.

The full programme is available on ITVX.

Sir Tony said the landslide victory his party secured for its return to government in 1997 allowed him the opportunity to get involved in Irish politics.

He explained: “There was a whole sense of a new dispensation in Britain. I believed what most people thought was completely impossible, was possible. That it was possible to make a peace. 

“To be fair as well, John Major had laid a lot of the groundwork for some of this, even though the ceasefire had collapsed and there was still a lot of violence. 

“I had a feeling… I had a passion… I had a feeling it could be done.”

He said after visits with leading figures in Irish politics while he was opposition leader, “I just got the impression, this is an old-fashioned dispute and if you come at this with a really determined attitude maybe we can find a way through”. 

Sir Tony spoke of the frantic attempts to get a deal in the run up to Good Friday in 1998.

Speaking of his famous remark in the days leading up to the agreement and when things were hanging in the balance: ‘This is not a day for soundbites, but I feel the hand of history on our shoulders’.

He said the remark just came into his head at the time and his entire staff found it amusing. 

On getting a deal with UUP leader David Trimble on board, he said he was ‘reasonably confident’ of finding agreement. 

“[David Trimble] was prepared to push,” he said.

As fractions developed among unionists, Sir Tony said he remembered John Taylor’s remark - that he would not touch cross-border bodies ‘with a 40ft barge poll’ - and there was a moment 36/48 hours into negotiations when he thought the whole thing was collapsing but “somehow we managed to pull it all back on track”. 

“It is a very interesting thing this,” he said. 

“The dynamic of the negotiation. Because the whole of the world’s media had then suddenly assembled because hopes had been raised by just the fact the British prime minister was there, I was spending all my time there… This was the thing I was focused on. 

“Every one assumed that there must be a much greater chance of peace than objectively at that point there was.” 

Speaking of Sinn Fein’s demand for prisoners to be released within a year of any deal, he praised the party in showing leadership on the matter. 

He said at the time he was not shocked by the demand, but rather that he was shocked by advice he received that “it wouldn’t be a huge problem for unionists”. 

“When instinctively I thought it would be a huge problem… as indeed it was”.

“This is where the Sinn Fein leadership was important. In the end I agreed to it and then had to effectively walk back from that agreement because I realised the advice I’d been given was wrong on that point, that unionism couldn’t accept that. 

“And this is where having people who are prepared to lead is so critical.”

He said Gerry Adams could have at the time told him he had that commitment to the prisoner release and it would be for Sir Tony to resolve. “But he didn’t do that,” Sir Tony said.

On carrying out talks at St Andrews, the former PM explained to get a “successful peace process” you had to get an atmosphere where people felt comfortable and to take them to nice places for talks.

He said: “I want all the people engaged in this, I want them in a place that is a nice place to be, I want them treated well, I want everyone to feel as relaxed as possible because we have got some difficult business. 

“I learned a lot about peace processes during this. And one thing is for sure, if you want a successful peace process you have to create an atmosphere they can make some change... where they feel engaged with you personally and not just politically.

“You try to get to know them as people. To understand what makes the tick... you are trying to establish between people, who have been bitter enemies, camaraderie or at least some sense of common purpose.”

‘Eamonn Mallie Face to Face with Tony Blair’ aired on Wednesday, January 25 at 9pm and is now available on ITVX here.

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