State Papers1992-2002

Power-sharing in North dogged by ‘continual attrition’ from the outset

Newly released state papers show how optimism around the Belfast Agreement in 1998 quickly gave way to stagnation

The files contained in this year’s release of state papers from the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland relate largely to the years 1998 and 1999 and cover the period between the ratification of the Belfast Agreement on April 10th, 1998, and the transfer to powers to the devolved Northern Ireland Assembly on December 2nd, 1999.

This was the first time Northern Irish politicians would be charged with governing the province under an agreement which shared power between different political ideologies since the abortive Sunningdale experiment in 1974, when a power-sharing executive collapsed after five months.

The 20-month hiatus between the Belfast Agreement and devolution was caused by the impasse on IRA decommissioning. The then Ulster Unionist Party leader and first minister-designate, David Trimble, insisted on some evidence that the IRA was putting its arms beyond use before he would agree to the full functioning of the Executive.

An Independent International Commission on Decommissioning (IIDC), chaired by the retired Canadian General, John de Chastelain, had been established in August 1997, soon after the renewal of the IRA ceasefire. The Belfast Agreement committed its signatories to work “in good faith” with the commission “to achieve the decommissioning of all paramilitary arms within two years”.


Elections for the new Northern Ireland Assembly were held on June 25th, 1998, and the newly elected MLAs convened for the first time on July 1st. In an assessment of the legislature’s early working, provided in September 1998, the speaker, former Alliance Party leader John Alderdice, praised “the businesslike approach” of members.

He pointed to two positive signs of co-operation which he felt had been under-appreciated. The DUP, which opposed the Belfast Agreement but ran candidates in the election and took up their Assembly seats, agreed to the establishment of a Shadow Assembly Commission, even though Sinn Féin’s Francie Molloy was to be a member.

Pressed on the issue of decommissioning, Mowlam insisted that it was ‘not a precondition’, a view that would not have been shared by many within unionism at the time

On the other side of the divide, Sinn Féin agreed to the establishment of an ad hoc committee on the consequences of devolution, which would report to the House of Commons, an implicit recognition of British rule. By April 1999 Alderdice had grown more pessimistic, reporting that things in the Assembly “were becoming fractious as members had little to occupy their time”.

A number of observers recognised that Trimble had little room for manoeuvre given opinion within his party, and wider unionist discontent channelled through the anti-agreement DUP and UK Unionist Party. In September 1998, Alderdice was of the view that “unionists had gone as far as they presently (sic) could” and for the “UUP to attempt to move further without concrete evidence” of decommissioning would be tantamount to “political suicide”.

He felt that some gesture towards decommissioning – such as a “large explosion in County Wicklow (or some other safe location in the Republic)” could give Trimble sufficient cover to advance devolution.

In February 1999, the assessment of Prof Monica McWilliams (of the Women’s Coalition) of the UUP’s position was that their key people understood that reform of the RUC, and similar measures that were difficult for their members and constituents, was pain “worth taking now in order to secure longer-term constitutional aspects”. This view was far from universal within the UUP.

The international dimension to the peace process was seen as crucial to facilitating decommissioning. Alderdice felt that the IIDC “and General de Chastelain in particular … had a vital role in brokering a potential solution”.

Of particular importance in this regard was the attitude of the US government. Officials in the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) were concerned about what they saw as a one-sided US interpretation of the logjam. Opinion within Irish-American circles “was solidly behind Sinn Féin’s analysis that unionist intransigence was to blame for lack of progress”, with the result that “the pressure on the White House was all one-way”.

The British government was keen to convince the Americans to apply pressure on Sinn Féin to make a gesture which would allow Trimble some wriggle room. In advance of meetings with US officials before Christmas in 1998, they wanted the US government “to leave [then Sinn Féin leader Gerry] Adams in no doubt that once North-South issues were resolved, it was then reasonable to expect some progress on decommissioning”. It was crucial that Adams not “be allowed to think that the US is letting him off the hook on decommissioning”.

The importance of having the backing of the Clinton administration and using US pressure to produce progress on decommissioning was underscored in a hastily convened meeting between Northern secretary Mo Mowlam and a US Congressional delegation (which included Nancy Pelosi and Peter King), held at Aldergrove airport on July 8th, 1999.

Pressed on the issue of decommissioning, Mowlam insisted that it was “not a precondition”, a view that would not have been shared by many within unionism at the time. Rather, she saw it as a question of confidence, and favoured the parallel process recommended by British premier Tony Blair and taoiseach Bertie Ahern of establishing the Executive and having all paramilitary arms decommissioned by May 2000. This proved to be a hopelessly unrealistic date, as decommissioning on the IRA side did not begin until October 2001 and concluded only in September 2005.

No-one involved in or observing the situation considered there to be any likelihood of achieving decommissioning in advance of the establishment of the Executive

The relationship between decommissioning and republican confidence was highlighted by academic McWilliams, whose unaligned interpretation of the political situation, given to Mowlam earlier in 1999, was that “Sinn Féin was awol with anxiety… generated by the inevitability of having to do something on weapons and retain their members”.

Then as now, cultural symbols, and in particular flags, had the potential to undermine such confidence. McWilliams warned that “Sinn Féin’s anxiety would be compounded by the appearance of union flags flying” from Stormont’s Parliament Buildings to mark the death of King Hussein of Jordan.

No-one involved in or observing the situation considered there to be any likelihood of achieving decommissioning in advance of the establishment of the Executive; the most that the Clinton administration hoped “to achieve with Sinn Féin was to explore ideas of … a ‘verbal deposit’”, where there would be a promise “to decommission at a date in the future after devolution had taken place”.

Progress towards devolution was also delayed by difficulty agreeing the structures of cross-Border bodies to be established under the North-South “Strand 2″ of the Belfast Agreement. The UUP’s Reg Empey “was not a happy camper” over the failure to make much progress by the end of 1998. This resulted from methodological differences in approach between the Irish government, who were “always dealing with the big picture”, and the unionist constituency which wanted “detail”.

Trimble was convinced, reluctantly, to accept full devolution in December 1999. Since then, and up to the present day, the history of the Assembly and Executive has been one of periodic suspension over issues such as decommissioning, security breaches and more recently the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Concerns were raised by officials in 1999 that MLAs would have trouble transitioning from opposition to power and would likely “seek advantage for their particular constituents” over “advancing the interests of the region as a whole”. In such a scenario the Executive was deemed likely to “degenerate into continual attrition between and within unionist and nationalist blocs”.

Given the current stagnation in northern politics, these were prescient observations.

Professor Marie Coleman is Professor of Twentieth Century Irish History and Disciplinary Lead for History at Queen’s University Belfast