UK Politics | Memoir | Socialism
On 23 October, I appeared on the BBC’s Question Time being broadcast from Belfast. The headline in the South Wales Argus read, ‘MP Murphy makes history in the TV Studio—the first Government Minister to share a television studio platform with Sinn Féin President, Gerry Adams.’ Joining Adams and me were John Hume of the SDLP, Conservative MP Andrew Hunter, and former Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, Dr John Dunlop. No local Unionist would appear on this show, and Mo judged it better for me, rather than her as Secretary of State, to take part. During the programme, a protestor leapt out of the audience and stopped just feet away from Adams, accusing him of terrorism. My own protection officer was on edge that night, to say the least! On a far less dramatic level, I made a statement in the Commons six days later on the Spending Settlement for Northern Ireland, and later answered questions on the European Union.
A much more significant event in my life occurred on 11 December 1997, when Sinn Féin leaders went to No. 10 Downing Street to meet with Tony, Mo and me. Along with the Ministers on the government side were John Holmes, Alistair Campbell, Quentin Thomas and Jonathan Powell; Sinn Féin fielded Adams, Martin McGuinness, Martin Ferris, Lucilita Bhreatnach, Richard McAuley, Siobhán O’Hanlon and Michelle Gildernew.
I have never seen so many journalists and cameras in Downing Street. When Sinn Féin arrived, it was as if a huge lightning storm was taking place. It was undeniably an historic moment: notwithstanding Unionist criticism of Tony, it was the right thing to do. I sat next to Tony, who was blunt and firm but polite. Only seven years previously, I had been in the tea room of the House of Commons when news came that the IRA had tried to blow up Downing Street with a mortar attack. This latest meeting was evidence of the progress made in Northern Ireland since then.
Progress though was shattered by the murder on 27 December of the loyalist, Billy Wright, killed in the Maze prison by Irish National Liberation Army members. Over the next few months, murders were to take place time and again.
Paul Murphy joined the Labour Party more than 55 years ago, serving on his local council before succeeding Leo Abse as MP for his home constituency of Torfaen, Wales, in 1987. In Peacemaker, he describes how the socialist beliefs he grew up with helped shape his early political consciousness, and led eventually to his playing a leading role in negotiating the Good Friday Agreement as Northern Ireland Minister under Mo Mowlam
On 9 January, against this background of disturbances and killings, Mo went into the Maze prison to meet with loyalist paramilitaries in the hope of persuading them of the merit of backing the peace process. I had advised against the risky visit, but Mo was right. Her gamble paid off, and she secured the backing she wanted—although sectarian killings continued.
Meanwhile, the talks were transferred to Lancaster House in London, where the loyalist UDP was temporarily barred from the talks for breaching the Mitchell Principles. Later, at the end of February in Dublin, Sinn Féin were similarly barred, but also returned to the fold in March. In early February, I had visited Paris and Bonn to update our European allies on the progress of the talks and, on 5 March, I called on the parties to seize the day! They listened to George Mitchell (who now set a deadline of Easter for a final agreement before he returned home), rather than listening to me.
Holy Week 1998 was to be one of the most important weeks of my life. George was absolutely right to insist on bringing the talks to an end. I travelled to Belfast on Sunday, 5 April, and had a brief meeting with George about what was ahead—it wouldn’t be easy, and I gave success a fifty-fifty chance.
The week has been very well documented by Alistair Campbell, Jonathan Powell, George Mitchell himself, and many others. Suffice it to say that drafts flew back and forth, tempers flared, countless meetings were held by the two prime ministers, who were constantly engaged and, miraculously, we all stayed in Castle Buildings.
My job was to concentrate on Strand 1, relating to the Northern Ireland institutions and related issues such as languages, but, all the time, I had to try to encourage people to keep talking and not to leave. The big negotiation took place on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. No one went to bed, and we carried on talking throughout the night. Two particular episodes come to mind. The first is Mo telling me to deal with Ian Paisley and his supporters, who were at that point marching on Stormont through the snow (they stopped!). The second is welcoming John Hume and Reg Empey into my office at about three in the morning to sign up to the agreement on how the assembly and the executive would operate.
I recall taking the decision that the assembly’s members would be known as Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs), as was the case in certain Commonwealth countries, and advising on a final number of 108. I remember also my visits to Tony’s office, and listening on one occasion as he spoke on the phone with Bill Clinton, who was urging all participants to agree on the deal.
By the morning of Good Friday, 10 April, we were all exhausted—Nigel Warner and I had perhaps managed an hour’s sleep on sofas in my office—but we had to continue. The rest of the day proved no less dramatic than had the entire week, with everyone finally waiting for David Trimble’s Unionists to come on board.
At precisely 5.36 pm, George Mitchell announced that agreement had been reached. It was a very moving and emotional moment. I was sitting next to Tony and Mo as the parties and governments, one by one, formally agreed the deal. There were many in tears. This was the beginning of the end of the conflict, and the culmination of years of negotiations.
I went over with Tony and Mo to meet the hundreds of journalists gathered outside Castle Buildings, and my own comments centred on the work done by all of the parties and on the fact that the agreement was, appropriately, made on Good Friday. Certainly, for my part, I have always used the phrase ‘Good Friday Agreement’.
People were very kind to me over the role that I played. Bertie Ahern paid ‘tribute to the sheer determination and skills of Tony Blair, Mo Mowlam and her deputy, Paul Murphy’, and George Mitchell said later ‘it is very clear that Tony Blair, with Mo Mowlam and Paul Murphy, clinched the deal.’ George wrote to me to say, ‘it was really great to work with you,’ and speaking at the meeting in Castle Buildings noted that I had done ‘a truly outstanding job’. Mo considered me to be better than her in the art of compromise.
I was most touched by their kind comments. I received dozens of letters over the days that followed and, at the end of this remarkable week, I travelled to Singapore to spend a little time with my brother and his family.
The Good Friday Agreement was wide-ranging, covering institutions, human rights, the release of so-called political prisoners, the police, military issues and decommissioning, north–south and east–west relations, the two constitutions, and a host of other matters. It was a political compromise, expressed in the formal language of an international agreement between two sovereign states. The cover of the agreement in its published format, portraying a family looking towards sunrise, was chosen by me.
Paul Murphy, MP for Torfaen from 1987 to 2015, was Welsh Secretary in the UK Government from 1999 to 2002 under Tony Blair and again from 2008 to 2009 under Gordon Brown. He was also Northern Ireland Secretary in the Labour government between 2002 and 2005. He now sits in the House of Lords as Lord Murphy of Torfaen
It was now time to start implementing the agreement. I took the Northern Ireland Elections and Referendum Bill through the Commons in late April, and the referendum held in the north and south took place on 22 May. During the weeks leading up to the referendum, I travelled the length and breadth of Northern Ireland talking to local and regional newspapers, and presenting the case for a ‘Yes’ vote. The Belfast Telegraph, The Newsletter and the Irish News, between them representing both communities, backed the agreement, as did a majority of the people in both parts of the island of Ireland. Following the declaration of the result, Mo and I addressed the world’s media—it was the biggest media event I have ever seen and, uniquely, the journalists and cameramen burst into spontaneous applause. I was almost in tears. The whole meaning of what had taken place seemed to hit me in just a few seconds.
Now we had to elect a new Northern Ireland Assembly, and the campaigning quickly gathered pace. The DUP, of course, campaigned against the agreement, while all the other parties argued for it. I kept out of this election—it was up to the people in Northern Ireland to decide for themselves who they wanted to govern them.
In late June, joined by Liz O’Donnell, I spoke to the parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe about the agreement, and about the situation in Northern Ireland. Previously, in May, I had briefed the secretary general of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Brussels, together with the new Irish Foreign Minister David Andrews ...
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