By Anne Cadwallader
BELFAST — Disappointment, anger and cynicism followed last Thursday’s decision by the Ulster Unionists to go back on a deal brokered less than 12 hours earlier by the British prime minister, Tony Blair, on the details of the new Northern Ireland Executive and the cross-border bodies.
The deal would have meant all sides agreed the proposed power-sharing executive would have 10 departments and ministers, and there would be eight areas of cross-border cooperation and implementation. The disagreement now threatens to push back the schedule for implementing these crucial aspects of the Good Friday peace agreement beyond the February deadline.
The Ulster Unionist Party leader, David Trimble, jetted out of Northern Ireland for a prize-giving ceremony in the U.S. at least four days earlier than the other party leaders, leaving behind a timetable in chaos. The move comes in the week Trimble and SDLP leader John Hume are to be conferred with their Nobel prize awards in Oslo.
Relations between First Minister Designate Trimble and Deputy First Minister Seamus Mallon are now extremely fraught, with each accusing the other of reneging on the deal. Blair was said to be "spitting blood" when he heard of its collapse, while Taoiseach Bertie Ahern was hardly less angry.
The deal was hammered out after more than eight hours of talks between Blair and the political parties on Wednesday night into Thursday morning, with the SDLP giving up their demands for cross-border inward investment cooperation, but with other substantial areas in the North-South axis included.
Never miss an issue of The Irish Echo
Subscribe to one of our great value packages.
The following day, when reporters at Stormont had written that only the details needed to be worked out, John Taylor, the UUP deputy leader, dropped a bombshell at a press conference in the main lobby of the building.
Taylor accused the SDLP of trying to renegotiate the Blair’s deal and said there was now no prospect of agreement being worked out for some weeks. This puts the entire timetable for the Good Friday agreement’s implementation in doubt. Parliamentary scheduling in London and Dublin requires at least eight weeks for legislation to pass through Westminster and the Dáil. February had been set as for the transfer of powers to Belfast and this date probably cannot now be met.
The SDLP, the Irish government and Sinn Féin, however, have refused to accept defeat and the UUP is now under pressure to agree on a deal before Christmas in order to meet the February target. The UUP is clearly playing for time, with Taylor, Trimble and others insisting that it’s more important to "get it done right" than get it done on time.
Leading the anti-Ulster Unionist charge is Mallon, the deputy leader of the SDLP, who said it was ridiculous for the UUP to claim it is being "bounced" into making an agreement on cross-border bodies when the last seven months had been spent discussing them.
There are two theories why David Trimble and his deputies decided to pull out of the deal. The first is that they were taken aback by a meeting of their 28-member Assembly party at 1 p.m. on Thursday when, according to insider reports, six members of the party voiced opposition to the deal.
The second theory, one favored by Sinn Féin, is that Trimble never had any intention of sticking to the bargain he made with Blair and was just waiting for his departure before pulling the plug on it.
Gerry Adams was the last political leader to meet Blair at Stormont in the early hours of Thursday morning and had warned him that the deal was not secure.
After Taylor’s press conference on Thursday, Mallon issued an angry statement saying agreement had been reached on the following points: A North-South trade and business development body; cross-border cooperation on tourism; a strategic transport planning body and a European Union programs body. In addition, there had been agreement that the incoming Cabinet, or Executive, would consist of ten members, although their precise departmental responsibilities had yet to be worked out.
"As far as I am concerned, my negotiations with the prime minister and the other parties have been completed on that basis. That is the deal that has been done and I stand by it," Mallon said.
"It is now for the other parties to confirm their participation in the agreement brokered by the prime minister," he said.
Trimble is insisting that an approaching deal was scuppered by fresh demands from the SDLP. UUP sources said that their assembly party had not been able to approve the deal and might need weeks to study papers and documentation on what was being proposed.
Trimble said on his exit from Northern Ireland that people should be "relaxed" about the missed target date for the transfer of powers. Mallon, in stark contrast, said: "People did not honor their word. That’s putting it as mildly as I possibly can."
Taylor issued a statement alleging the Dublin government had failed to submit its proposals until Oct. 30 and his party had agreed to only six areas of North-South cooperation, with the UUP putting forward three and accepting the SDLP could do the same.
The UUP’s three areas of proposed cooperation included: Food safety, waterways (canals and rivers) and marine issues (legalistic arguments about where the border runs in Lough Foyle and Carlingford Lough).
Despite the gloom over the disagreements, Sen. George Mitchell said his a major lecture broadcast on the BBC this week that the Good Friday agreement would endure because it is balanced and fair.