Tony Blair: The Good Friday Agreement, its key players and where it is 25 years on

Eamonn Mallie Face to Face with Tony Blair Credit: UTV

Former prime minister, and one of the architects of the Good Friday Agreement, Tony Blair has spoken exclusively to UTV ahead of the 25th anniversary of the historic peace accord revealing, how it came about, was on a “knife edge until the last moment,” why he got involved and how healthy it is today. 

The wide-ranging interview on ‘Eamonn Mallie Face to Face with…’ charts the former Labour leader’s early life on what he learned from his parents to holidaying in Donegal and how he got “Ireland in the blood”.

He also discusses the key players in the talks leading up to the 1998 deal and their roles as well as the crucial moments working on the agreement and beyond until he left office.

Beginning in his early years, Sir Tony talks of the impact his father’s illness had on him when he was just 10. 

His father - who was 40 at the time - had a stroke just at a point in life he was having great success and the family’s “whole world changed”. 

He said the radical change in circumstances changed his own attitude on life in that from there he realised he had to “get on and make the most of it”.

Sir Tony says many of his formative years were holidaying with his family in Donegal and in particular Rossnowlagh. 

His mother’s side of the family came from the village. His grandfather was an Orangeman and he describes his grandmother as a “very staunch - you might almost say somewhat prejudiced - protestant”.

In the interview he explains that in his teens, the first time he learned of Ian Paisley was from his grandmother. 

He recalls: “She said to me, ‘There is this man who is going to come and save Northern Ireland and his name is Ian Paisley’. 

“I didn’t know who he was… she was very much on that side of politics.”

He described his family in Donegal as Presbyterian farmers. 

“I didn’t have a perception of Ireland, I was a kid. It was in Donegal I took my first interest in girls, learned to play the guitar and had my first drink. 

“That was more important than whatever was going on in the politics of Ireland.”

He also spoke of his grandmother’s deathbed warning. She had been suffering from Alzhemier’s.

“Her message, unbelievably, was ‘whatever else you do son, don’t marry a Catholic’ … and I did. I didn’t have the heart to tell her at the time I had just started going out with one. 

“It is a strange thing. She was a lovely woman in many, many ways. But when she was ill and lost her mental capacity, the residue of what remained was essentially a piece of bigotry.”

“It made a great impression on me at the time… It stayed with me as evidence of how deep these prejudices can go and how irrational they are. To someone of my generation at that point in time, I didn’t care whether my wife was Protestant or Catholic.”

He said, as part of his upbringing, those early experiences played a role in influencing his later life. He recounts how during those years there was no issue with religion but when the Troubles began it came to the fore.

He explained how a letter from his cousin warning of Catholicism, nationalism and republicanism stuck with him. 

“When I thought there was an opportunity to make a difference and to change the politics of the Island of Ireland, I took it.”

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.

“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. 

He said he had “no idea” where it came from.

“I laughed at myself actually afterwards.”

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 secured the prisoner release  commitment and it would be for Sir Tony to resolve issues with unionism. 

“But he didn’t do that,” Sir Tony said.

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 the UUP MP would not touch cross-border bodies ‘with a 40ft barge pole’. 

He said there was a moment 36 to 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, the dynamic of the negotiation,” he continued.

“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.” 

When asked about how significant US Senator George Mitchell was in the negotiations, Sir Tony said he had laid some of the groundwork by setting up the different strands. 

“I mean, he didn't really play a part in the negotiation. 

“And I think, frankly, his first words to me when I came to Northern Ireland for the negotiation were ‘I think this is going to be difficult, if not impossible’, but he was very critical in keeping us in touch with the American administration, with President Clinton the whole time and President Clinton played an important part in getting this over the line.”

Due to a rebellion within the Ulster Unionist Party on entering government with republicans before the IRA decommissioned arms, Sir Tony wrote a letter to leader David Trimble and enlisted the help of President Bill Clinton.

“Well, it wasn't really ambiguous … I did give a clear commitment to David that we would deal with decommissioning and the arms issue. But let’s say at the time I gave the commitment it wasn’t clear exactly how we would do that. 

“The big benefit of President Clinton was that he remains one of the most acute political thinkers there is and he just grasped intuitively the politics of the situation and was able to talk both to David and Sinn Fein side in in the right way,

“The great thing about having a strong partnership with the American president - he and I were friends and political associates as well as leaders together - was that I was able to be completely blunt with him as to what I needed him to do. 

“And he was always smart enough to get it immediately and irrespective of the time of day and night it was.”

He said he also got the president to contact Gerry Adams at a critical point.

“That was extremely important as well. Sinn Fein curiously had a very strong position in the United States of America and this was a Democratic president phoning Gerry Adams. 

“I am sure it made an impact.” 

He said he was confident of the IRA and loyalists putting their arms beyond use. 

“I could tell. I had a conversation, a long conversation, with Martin McGuinness which I remember very well. Martin was a very straightforward guy. 

“I know all the history and often people from the unionist community really object when I speak in respectful terms about him and his impact. 

“But he spoke to me a lot about the history of the Troubles, about his own role in them, and about his desire that the next generation of people should know something different.”

The former prime minister, who transformed the Labour party, said he believed a letter pledging serious action on Sinn Fein if decommissioning did not happen within six months as well as a call from the US President empowered David Trimble to make the deal. 

“I think it was on a knife edge right up until the very last moment. And I think when he understood that I was serious that in the end we would deal with the arms issue - [although] that took us longer to deal with than we wanted, for sure. 

“But I think he became convinced, rightly that I recognised there couldn't be a proper and lasting peace unless the violence stopped and as time went on it became clear and this is why I said in the end constructive ambiguity had to finish and acts of completion had to take place. 

“That violence is not just about the terrorism. It was about the whole structure, infrastructure of IRA control of neighbourhoods.”

The moment David Trimble confirmed to the Downing Street team he would back the deal came with a “lot of joy and relief,” Sir Tony said. 

“I always say to people in politics, there were very few moments of unalloyed joy and that was one of them. 

“Other than winning the Olympic bid for Britain for the 2012 Olympics, those very specific moments they don't, they don't happen very often in politics. 

“I was delighted and I also remember saying to Jonathan Powell, my chief of staff, we need to get George to get out there and make the announcement straight away.”

Asked about the giving up of guns not being in the text of the agreement when it was first published, he said “it was clear” that there had to be an end to violence for peace to happen. 

“The agreement was the start of the process. This was one of the things I think that wasn't properly understood, not fully understood, even by us at the time. 

“Ultimately you had a whole series of things that had to happen before the agreement. was really in place. 

“And it wasn't, frankly, until nine years later. Just before I left office, that it really was in place.”

On dealing with the late Ian Paisley, Sir Tony said it took him some time to form a relationship with the then DUP leader given his vehement rejection of the Good Friday Agreement which the firebrand politician described as a “betrayal to unionism” at the time.

“Mellowed is the wrong word to use in respect of Ian,” Sir Tony said, “I think he came to a view that his own community was willing to give this thing a try. 

“And it was for him, I think again, as it had been for David, it was also about understanding whether I understood the thing had to be real, in order for it to happen that in other words, there had to be a genuine desire on the part of the republican community to make peace and to agree with the principle of consent.”

He said it was the community behind Dr Paisley and their desire to make an agreement work that drove the soon-to-be first minister to get onboard. 

Asked if he “played smartly” on getting Dr Paisley back to Belfast from St Andrews to celebrate his wedding anniversary, he said 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.

“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.”

On his assessment of Gerry Adams, he described him as having the capacity to “think strategically, that he was very shrewd and very tough”. 

“Those were necessary qualities in bringing this about.

“Both he and Martin McGuinness had the requisite degree of subtlety. 

“In politics, when you're in a difficult situation and you're taking your own people on a tough journey. You've got to have a bit of subtlety.

“You've got to know how you're going to explain to them that what those who oppose you will describe as a sellout, is actually progress. 

“And that requires a capacity as I say, both to think strategically and to do and to be able to persuade your own people with a degree of subtlety.”

Asked about “burgling” John Hume’s political philosophy - in that the SDLP leader promoted a three-stranded agreement, the necessity for consent and the idea of referenda in both parts of the island - Sir Tony said he would not describe it as “burglary or stealing”.

“That sounds as if you're doing something wrong, but I'd be completely open about it. John Hume was very much the original author of this process, for sure.

“He had the foresight and the political courage... because even though he didn't play a huge part in the actual negotiation, as a constructor of the genesis of the peace process, he was completely vital and was the first person I think to, to think this can be settled. 

“So he was way up there in the pantheon of people for sure.”

He said the Good Friday Agreement had worked “mostly” but was not working as it should at the moment. 

“When you compare life in Northern Ireland today with what it was when I was growing up in in the 1980s, you used to wake up virtually every morning to radio or television stories about a fresh atrocity, a terrorist attack, someone being killed. 

“Northern Ireland was just woven in the fabric of UK politics in a deeply negative way. 

“And I think for a lot of people who don't remember what it was like before for the Good Friday Agreement, you know, maybe they just take it for granted. 

“But I can tell you for years and years and years, it was a huge and unresolved sore.” 

On Brexit and the damage it could do and has done to stability in NI politics, Sir Tony said it left him “very frustrated” as it was all “so unnecessary”. 

“John Major and I went to Northern Ireland during the Brexit referendum and said look, if you if you end up doing the only Brexit in the end that you will end up doing which is the hard Brexit you take Britain not just out of the political structures of Europe but the trading structures, the single market in the Customs Union, you're going to cause a problem in the border of Ireland because the border between north and south then becomes for the external border of the European Union. 

“Remember, the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom joined the European Union on the same day in 1973. And so the relationship between the UK, the south of Ireland and Europe has always been the same, always either out of Europe or in Europe together. 

“The moment that one stays in Europe and the other comes out you're gonna have a huge problem.”

On Brexit, he said he was convinced the peace would hold despite the tensions it had brought and that the people on the island of Ireland were determined to ensure there could be no return to the past. 

He said a “durable” political settlement had been undermined by Brexit but it “could and should” be fixed. 

Asked if there was a “validity” to the DUP’s objection that the protocol had set Northern Ireland apart from the rest of the UK, Sir Tony said “in one sense what they are saying is  correct.. the problem is it flows from Brexit”.

“Once you make the external border of the European Union, the border between north and south in Ireland and you've taken the UK out of the single market and Customs Union, naturally the Europeans say, well, in that case, you've got to have border checks. 

“If you want rid of those border checks, which we do because of the peace process, and because we want to keep the border open, then you're going to have to find a way that you can't have goods made in Britain transferred to Northern Ireland then transferred into the European Union without checks. 

“Does the Northern Ireland Protocol mean that Northern Ireland is to be treated differently than it was when it was part of the single market and Customs Union? Well, to a degree, but the whole purpose of the protocol was to find a way around that. 

“And it after all, was agreed by the UK Government and the European Union.

“Now, my own belief is that if both sides are flexible and you take the ideology out of this and look at just the practicality because most goods that come from Britain going into Northern Ireland, are staying in Northern Ireland. 

“I think if you approach this in a practical way, you can find a solution and I hope we do find a solution and now that Kier Starmer, for example has said that from the Labour Party perspective, he'll back the government and we're not going to play politics with this issue. It should be possible to do.

“We were always going to have a problem in Northern Ireland. With the border. If the UK leaves the European Union, the Republic of Ireland doesn't and we leave the economic structures as well as the political ones.”

Brexit, he said, had “clearly” put a strain on the Union but he hoped it would not lead to its break up. 

“A majority of people in Scotland and a majority of people in Northern Ireland voted against Brexit.

“They wanted to remain part of Europe. They realised it was in their economic and political interests and frankly, there's nothing has happened since we did Brexit to make them think that they took the wrong view. 

“So and of course, this is one of the reasons why it's so important to resolve this issue of the Northern Ireland Protocol quickly. 

“It's important because the longer it goes on the bigger that strain on the Union is, which is why it's always been to me bizarre, frankly, that unionism has been in favour of Brexit.”

He said Brexit couldn’t be undone for this generation. 

“But what you can do is fix it and make sure that you deal with the problems of Brexit like the Northern Ireland Protocol. 

“You can build relations with Europe, you can build structures of pillars of cooperation and understanding.

“We can change our legal and political relationship, but we can't change our geography when you go by train from London to Paris quicker than you do to Edinburgh or even Newcastle on some days. 

“People don't want to go back into the divisive argument. 

“But you do have to fix the problems and you have to accept there are problems.”

Asked if a united Ireland was inevitable, he said no. 

“But I think whatever happens, people want it to happen in a peaceful and consensual way. 

“One of the reasons we created the peace in Northern Ireland and got the Good Friday Agreement is that the Republic of Ireland, the south of Ireland has changed beyond all recognition.

“I mean, a lot of people in the north used to fear that the south was a bastion of backwardness, and old-style politics and so on. 

“You look at Ireland today. It's a successful country and it's been enormously helped by being in Europe. 

“Ireland's a much-admired country today. So I think the whole context is different. 

“But no, I think that the Union can still hold but the whole purpose of the Good Friday Agreement was to make the border less important, to allow people not just to move freely across the border, but for trade to happen. 

“Ireland and Britain worked closely together in Europe on many different issues. 

“So it was about recognising that as we approach the end of the 20th Century, we were just in a completely new world and should take advantage of that. 

“And I had the great good fortune in having in Bertie Ahern, a colleague on the Irish side who had the same instinct.”

He said he did not know when a border poll would take place.  

“The view in the Republic of Ireland from people I speak to is that this is not something people want to rush and in the end there's a lot of other issues they want to deal with.”

He said he wanted the United Kingdom to remain as it is, something he said was “politically wise”.

“But we created an agreement in which ultimately this is a choice for the people of Northern Ireland.”

On the issue of the protocol, he said it could develop into something more problematic. 

“We've got to have a solution to the current problem. And that requires the leadership both in Northern Ireland and in the UK to come together and find a way through. 

“The problem is there's a bit of the Conservative Party that’s in the grip of this sort of Brexit cult, frankly and the degree to which that then intrudes on the capacity of the Conservative Party leadership to conclude the deal is the issue. 

“Whereas I just think for the Labour Party leadership, you know, it's a very clear thing, get a practical solution and move on.”

No 10 has said ministers are still working with Brussels to resolve the outstanding issues around the protocol.

“We continue to work closely with our EU counterparts. It remains our ambition to try to reach an agreement as soon as we can with the EU,' the spokesman said.

“As the Prime Minister said before, of course he wants to have a broad range of agreement over the issues we know the protocol is facing.”

Mr Blair was also asked if lessons he learned in NI could be applied in Ukraine. He said they could not be compared.

“I think a better analogy would be some of the other peace processes around [like the] Israelis, Palestinians and so on. 

“It's very difficult, but you do have to be prepared to sit down with people that you profoundly disagree with. 

“Where you've got a long-standing dispute, and at the heart of this dispute in Northern Ireland was ‘should it be united Ireland or United Kingdom right’. 

“The actual dispute itself was not an unreasonable dispute. The methods by which people were pursuing it may have been unreasonable, but at the heart of it was a perfectly legitimate debate. 

“The difference, frankly, with Putin in Ukraine and the problem that you've got, with the Ukraine-Russia situation is there isn't something reasonable at the heart of it. 

“I mean, there's literally the invasion of a democratic country that has never been a problem to its region that's got a president they've elected by a process and you're literally invading the country to try and topple the president and turn them into a satellite state. 

“This is a wholly different ballgame. 

“I hope it can be resolved. There's no way it's going to be resolved unless Putin accepts that he can't be rewarded for the aggression. 

“So it's a more difficult situation frankly, because as I say, at the heart of it is something where there isn't something on both sides. You could say in Northern Ireland, the unionists have a case, the nationalists have a case. An objective observer would say, ‘Well, I mean, both sides have got a reasonable enough position. How do you resolve it?’ 

“Whereas this Russia Ukraine thing I think it's hard to see what the case is for having done what Putin’s done.”

He added: “I don't think anyone's got a problem engaging with President Putin or Russia, provided they are realistic about the fact that no one is going to accept that the Ukrainians should have their independence and their sovereignty undermined. 

“And the problem is, there's no sign at the moment that President Putin or Russia is prepared to accept that and that's the problem. 

“I think people realise you can only bring it to an end if it's done on the basis which doesn't reward the aggression.”

Turning back to Northern Ireland, Sir Tony was asked if it was his greatest political triumph.

He said that was for others to judge, “but it’s certainly something of which I was hugely proud”. 

“I think the most important lesson for contemporary politics was in the end, the Good Friday Agreement came about because all sorts of different people in positions of leadership were prepared to take difficult decisions and decisions that they knew would disconcert some of the people in their own ranks. But they decided to do it.

“And that is a type of political leadership that's not very common now. 

“We could never have made peace in Northern Ireland, if we hadn't had people prepared to put the politics to one side and just concentrate on what was right.”

Eamonn Mallie Face to Face with Tony Blair is available to watch again on ITVX.

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