Taoiseach Bertie Ahern warned in late 1998 the Irish Government would refuse to go ahead with removing the Article 2 and Article 3 national territory claims from the Constitution if unionists continued to refuse honouring their commitments under the Belfast Agreement.
He said if that happened and the process did not move forward it would be a very perilous situation for himself and for British prime minister Tony Blair as both had “let a lot of dangerous people out of prison”.
The release of hundreds of republican and loyalist prisoners from the Maze was beginning around the time.
In a candid conversation with US senator for Florida Connie Mack, Mr Ahern expressed frustrations at what he saw was the total inaction of unionists and consistently criticised Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimble for doing nothing.
The transcript of Mr Ahern’s meeting with Mr Mack, a leading figure in the Republican Party, is among documents transferred to the National Archive from the Department of the Taoiseach. They will be available for public viewing in January.
The conversation between Mr Ahern and Mr Mack took place only days before Mr Trimble flew to Oslo, Norway, in December, to accept the Nobel Peace Prize along with John Hume. Notwithstanding that, Mr Ahern was scathing of Mr Trimble’s stance since the agreement had been signed the previous April.
“The situation appears to be that everything is described by the unionists as being necessary, until it is given, then it is pocketed. Nothing is being given in return,” he told Mr Mack.
“I think David Trimble is playing with fire. David Trimble has in effect given nothing. Yes, I understand he is in a corner but I cannot understand why he would not even agree to what the bodies were to be.”
The reference to being in a corner refers to the internal difficulties Mr Trimble had in the UUP with figures such as John Taylor and Jeffrey Donaldson. The “bodies” refers to the efforts by the Irish Government to set up the North-South ministerial bodies, a key component of the Belfast Agreement, over which unionists dragged their heels.
The main sticking point was decommissioning – as it would continue to be for the next seven years. Mr Ahern said no one seemed to have the answer to resolving it. He said the republican movement was going to sit tight on it.
“The more people shout at them to do something the less likely they are to respond. I would say however that I have no indication there is any move to return to violence.”
The taoiseach said the Irish government had got Gerry Adams to say the war was over and got Martin McGuinness to act as Sinn Féin’s chief negotiator with the international decommissioning body.
He said the next steps in the process were for the Executive and the north-south bodies to be formed. The final, fifth step, would be for decommissioning to happen. He told the Florida senator that the process had been thwarted by unionist inaction. “There was no movement on the Executive. If there had been I believe the IRA would have moved on decommissioning. They got nothing and now they have decided that because of that they are determined they will not move on decommissioning.”
Asked by Mr Mack whether the government row back on the Article 2 and Article 3 changes to the Constitution, despite it being approved by referendum, Mr Ahern said: “We would extend the time period but we certainly will not make the constitutional change without the other side of the bargain being upheld.
“If it were even to become an issue down the line it could become very dangerous. We have been maintaining a cover for David Trimble in the Republic but he is now playing it very thin.
“Republicans will say to me this is the way it has always been. Trimble is falling into the old ways. There are 30,000 in the security force in Northern Ireland in a situation where there should be 6,000. There’s a call for republican guns to be handed in but there are many thousands of guns in unionist hands, many of these legally held.
“David Trimble has done nothing. He cannot be given much credit.”
Mr Ahern said Tony Blair had taken all the risk by setting up the policing commission, human rights bodies and agreeing to the release of prisoners.
Asked about the political risk for Mr Blair, the taoiseach replied: “Both he and I are in trouble if the process does not move forward. Both of us have let a lot of dangerous people out of prison. Adams is managing to keep a lid on the Republican Movement.”
In a meeting around the time with Mr Adams, the taoiseach’s special adviser Martin Mansergh said the Sinn Féin leader told him the IRA’s Army Council “did not take what he said on trust”.
[ IRA chiefs in Maze approved building escape tunnel ‘but wanted it to fail’ ]
Mr Adams told Mr Mansergh that the IRA would never decommission. He said a change in the whole context might influence the IRA to change its position, or perhaps with the passage of time, the question would no longer be relevant.
Mr Mansergh observed of Mr Adams: “He was in reflective rather than any recriminating mood. He had several meetings with Trimble. He believed unionists felt that to a certain degree the Agreement had been imposed on them, and they were trying to get out from underneath it.
“Trimble had been quoted to him as saying privately that there would be a political settlement, but it might not be this one, and he might not be the Unionist leader.” Archive file reference: 2022/83/17.