“This was the biggest irritant between us and the Northern Ireland Office..”

Just a quick point about The Observer’s extracts from Henry McDonald’s recently published book Gunsmoke and Mirrors – How Sinn Féin dressed up defeat as victory. Mary Alice Clancy’s study of the Bush administration’s Northern Ireland policy between 2001 and 2006 may have been under-reported, but it wasn’t un-reported – as John Ware would confirm [And Paul Bew – Ed]. But it has never been just about those “dreary steeples”. From The Observer article

Clancy said that those she spoke to in the State Department insisted it was Reiss who pursued this pre-condition to powersharing far more vigorously than either the British or Irish governments. Reiss resisted, specifically in the face of Irish government opposition, overturning George Bush’s ban on Sinn Fein raising funds in the United States in the build-up to the St Andrews talks. Dermot Ahern, the then Irish Foreign Minister, had tried to persuade the Americans to soften their stance on policing as the price for powersharing. The US special envoy maintained that the ban would only be lifted once Sinn Fein agreed to sign up to policing.

The article also highlights some points of interest.

The Bush and Blair governments were also at odds over the latter’s view of ‘ordinary’ IRA crime such as robberies. One American official said: ‘This was the biggest irritant between us and the Northern Ireland Office. I don’t believe that they (the NIO) had ever issued a policy statement to the police to tell them to ignore IRA criminality as long as it did not turn into bombs on the mainland, but I believe that many, many police thought they operated under those rules.’

The alleged British policy of ‘turning a blind eye’ in the interests of the wider peace process, the American official added, ended after the IRA stole £26 million in the Northern Bank raid. Following the robbery the Americans adopted a told-you-so attitude to their NIO counterparts, he said.

Even after St Andrews the British continued to try to water down the policing element of the deal in order not to cause the Sinn Fein leadership any grief from its base. Almost exactly a year after that historic agreement Ian Paisley returned to Scotland, this time to the south-west coast. In his capacity as First Minister of Northern Ireland Paisley was guest of honour at the opening of the Wigtown international book festival held every year in the first weekend of September.

After opening the conference Paisley apparently revealed to one author backstage that Tony Blair was still trying to dilute the policing requirement so insisted upon by the Americans. The DUP leader said that on New Year’s Day 2007 he was woken up by a phone call from the then Prime Minister who was on a post-Christmas holiday in the Caribbean. Blair implored him, said Paisley, to allow modifications to the policing section of the St Andrews Agreement. Paisley said he refused and tried to get back to sleep. To no avail. Blair made a further five phone calls that morning attempting to persuade Paisley to backtrack a little on the policing question. Each time Paisley refused to relent.

The timing of these New Year’s Day calls was critical as within less than a month Sinn Fein was to hold that special Ard Fheis/conference which would either ratify or reject support for the PSNI. Blair, according to Paisley’s version of events, was again trying to cut Sinn Fein some slack. The problem, however, was that just like the republican movement’s relationship to the United States, the dynamics of British and Northern Irish politics had also altered radically. Paisley was unmoved by prime ministerial pressure. He would and could not relent on policing and Sinn Fein’s support for the PSNI as the republicans’ passport into powersharing. Otherwise Paisley knew he would split the DUP down the middle. Moreover, Blair no longer exercised such a mesmeric charm on the unionist leadership. He was a lame duck Prime Minister whom everyone, including Paisley, knew was about to hand over power to Gordon Brown. The result of the Ard Fheis poll, an overwhelming vote in favour, also exposed the charade with which the Adams leadership had dazzled Blair and his Downing Street chief of staff Jonathan Powell for so long. Despite the departure of a handful of former prominent activists such as Jim McAllister and Davy Hyland from South Armagh, the vast majority of Sinn Fein was still under Adams’s tight control. Perhaps Paisley too guessed that Adams would easily win the day. He no longer cared about Blair’s concern for Adams’ leadership and its survival. Moreover, the DUP leader in the policing debate now had America on his side.