By Jack Holland
The current crisis over the implementation of the Good Friday peace agreement stems directly from a fundamental miscalculation the Ulster Unionist Party negotiators made during the fraught negotiations, leading them to sign up to an agreement containing provisions which ultimately they could not sell to their respective supporters, according to a source who was close to the talks.
David Trimble, the UUP leader, acted on the assumption that "Sinn Fein would walk out of the talks before they were concluded, and took his eye off the prisoners and decommissioning," said this source. The Unionists believed that the republicans would refuse to accept the provisions for a new Northern Ireland assembly.
Such a walk-out would have left the Ulster Unionists free to deal with the SDLP.
This proved to be a disastrous miscalculation. Not only did Sinn Fein accept the assembly, but it convened a special ard fheis to approve of its members taking seats in it if elected.
Meanwhile, Sinn Fein "sold" the agreement’s decommissioning provision — which envisioned the process being completed by May 2000 — to the IRA leadership saying that by then the new institutions, including the cross-border bodies and power-sharing government, "would be up and running." Disarmament would take place in the context of a government which included Sinn Fein members. This sweetened the pill for the republican movement.
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Ulster Unionist Party negotiators, including the party leader David Trimble, concentrated their attention on diluting Strand Two proposals for cross-border bodies, allowing Sinn Fein and the UVF-linked Progressive Unionist Party to concentrate their attention on the issues of the disarmament of paramilitary groups and the release of prisoners.
In the meantime, the SDLP succeeded in strengthening the provisions in the Strand One phase of the talks for the scope and power of the new assembly, which the Unionists had envisioned as being no more than a county council, and Sinn Fein and the Progressive Unionist Party negotiators managed to win important concessions in regard to the release of their prisoners. The subsequent freeing of convicted paramilitaries during the referenda on the agreement outraged many UUP supporters, convincing them not to vote in its favor.
Though senior UUP negotiator Sir Reg Empey said that there were "some bits of the Good Friday agreement that we like more than others . . . that was in the nature of the agreement. You have to see it as a whole." He denied that his party had miscalculated on the issues of prisoners and decommissioning, which were always "within the remit of the British government" regardless of what was or was not agreed upon.
"Most observers expected Sinn Fein to walk," he asserted.
The decommissioning issue proved the most divisive. The UUP was demanding immediate decommissioning, while Sinn Fein wanted a five-year grace period before it should begin. The final agreement envisioned a completion of decommissioning within two years. At the end both Sinn Fein and the UUP were forced to accept a compromise that neither could "sell" to their respective constituencies.
This caused a split within the UUP, with Jeffrey Donaldson walking out before the agreement was signed.
Over a year later, Sinn Fein’s reassurances to the IRA leadership have been proven false: nothing has been set up and the republican movement is saying in private that "we’ve been betrayed," according to usually reliable sources.
Since April last year, the core of UUP members unhappy with the agreement has grown, until the party is now almost equally divided between pro-and anti-agreement factions. The division threatens to undermine Trimble’s leadership.
As well, decommissioning has become ever more difficult to sell to the IRA. The failure to enact the agreement, along with the rising loyalist violence against Catholics, have dashed any hopes that Sinn Fein negotiators may have had that the issue would melt away in the context of the new all-embracing settlement.
June 2-8, 1999