On July 14, 1999, Ulster Unionists under David Trimble reject a compromise for the creation of a power sharing government placing the Northern Ireland peace process in grave trouble. The proposals would have seen inclusive self-government introduced in Northern Ireland on Sunday, July 18, 1999.
Early in the day the government rushes legislation through the House of Commons providing for the suspension of the Executive if the Irish Republican Army (IRA) fails to decommission all its arms by May 2000 in line with a timetable, yet to be drawn up. It refuses to accept any Ulster Unionist amendments. But within 12 hours, British Prime Minister Tony Blair signals that three new amendments will be included to tighten the so-called failsafe mechanism when the bill is debated in the House of Lords in the evening.
The first amendment makes clear that decommissioning must proceed in line with a timetable to be drawn up by General John de Chastelain. The second provides for the automatic suspension of the Executive, while the third provides for the party in default to be clearly identified.
They fail to sway Trimble, who criticises The Way Forward as a hastily concocted scheme. However, he does leave the door open for further negotiations to save the agreement. “If there was a clear watertight scheme, in which there was at the outset an unequivocal commitment to change and a process that genuinely guaranteed to deliver that change, we would have to consider whether a scruple over a period of days could be justified.”
Sinn Féin is furious with party president Gerry Adams saying, “Those who may genuinely want to deal with the issue of guns are going about it in absolutely the worst and wrong way.” The party wants the assembly to be wound up immediately, and all members’ wages to be stopped. It wants the British and Irish governments to continue to implement all aspects of the agreement which are within their control. Adams is enraged by Blair’s move to amend the failsafe legislation. His party says it will consider applying for judicial review of the amended bill, believing it to compromise the International Commission on Decommissioning and unlawfully conflict with the agreement.
Blair and Taoiseach Bertie Ahern announce on the following day that the 15-month-old and ailing Good Friday Agreement will go into a review procedure involving all the political parties and be effectively parked over the summer.
Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionists, resists intense government pressure as he refuses to back the British and Irish governments’ blueprint providing for a power-sharing executive the following week and IRA decommissioning in the summer. He repeats his party’s view that Sinn Féin can only join his cabinet once the IRA has started to hand over its weapons.
The outcome is a bitter personal setback for Blair. In a last-minute televised appeal to the Unionists not to “close the door’ on an agreement, he appears to acknowledge that they will have to try to find another way forward. “I believe in the end we will get an agreement on this. Whether we manage it by tomorrow morning, that is more difficult,” he says.
Trimble complains he had too little time to secure backing within his split party for The Way Forward, which the governments issued twelve days earlier after a week of intense negotiations at Stormont Castle. Blair’s handling of the affair is questioned.
Trimble’s problem with the legislative failsafe is that it punishes all parties for an IRA transgression of a decommissioning timetable, yet to be drawn up. It provides for the executive to be suspended, rather than carry on with Sinn Féin’s two ministerial posts allocated to other parties. The nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), which could have given Trimble cover on the issue of expulsion, declines to say whether it will vote for Sinn Féin’s expulsion, which infuriates Ulster Unionists.
Negotiations to save the Good Friday Agreement have gone through four deadlines during the year. There are fears that the latest delay might lead to Sinn Féin withdrawing its declaration on IRA arms.
(Pictured: British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Taoiseach Bertie Ahern present a joint British-Irish blueprint for implementation of the Good Friday Agreement at Stormont Castle in Belfast, June 2, 1999 | Sean Gallup | Getty Images)