Tony Blair was told to meet Orange Order to ‘influence’ Protestant voters

Former Labour prime minister Tony Blair (PA)
Former Labour prime minister Tony Blair (PA)

Tony Blair was encouraged to talk to Orange Order leaders in 1998 to “influence” Protestant voters who had yet to make up their minds about the Good Friday Agreement, declassified state papers reveal.

The Orange Order leadership had sought a meeting with the Labour prime minister after the signing of the historic peace agreement, but before the public on both sides of the Irish border had voted in a referendum.

Papers reveal that the order had held out for a face-to-face meeting with Mr Blair to express their concerns over the agreement.

Then-Northern Ireland secretary Mo Mowlam’s private secretary wrote to Mr Blair’s private secretary on 30 April 1998, stating that the Grand Orange Lodges of England, Scotland and Ireland “continue to press” for a meeting with the PM.

“Given the commitment of these individuals to keeping the Orange Order on a moderate course, Dr Mowlem thinks it would be well worth the prime minister’s time to meet them,” the top official wrote.

The file also includes a note from Mr Blair’s diary secretary stating that the “prime minister will meet the Grand Orange Lodges of England, Scotland and Ireland on Thursday May 7 after cabinet”.

The Good Friday Agreement, also known as the Belfast Agreement, was a political deal designed to bring an end to 30 years of violent conflict in Northern Ireland.

It was signed on 10 April 1998, and was approved later in May by public votes in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

The records reveal that Mr Blair was advised that he should use the “government machine” to push for a Yes vote in the referendum – but not to the extent that it would risk calling the result of the historic vote into question.

The prime minister’s cabinet secretary Richard Wilson wrote a memo to Mr Blair setting out what position government ministers should take if a deal was signed and a referendum called.

He recommended that “the scale and nature of the support given to ministers should be carefully circumscribed … to ensure the playing field is not so tilted in favour of the ‘yes’ campaign as to call into question the validity of the result”.

The memo said the Blair government should avoid “active campaigning” during the referendum campaign, leaving this instead to the Northern Ireland political parties.

Tony Blair (right), US Senator George Mitchell (centre) and Irish premier Bertie Ahern after they signed the Good Friday peace agreement (PA)
Tony Blair (right), US Senator George Mitchell (centre) and Irish premier Bertie Ahern after they signed the Good Friday peace agreement (PA)

It has also emerged that Tory prime minister John Major was concerned loyalists would walk away from the ceasefire back in 1996 if they thought the British government was giving into Sinn Fein demands.

Mr Major made the comments in a conversation with then-Taoiseach John Bruton, when Irish officials were facing difficulties in getting the British side to move away from a plan to enforce a three-month wait time before allowing Sinn Fein to enter the peace talks.

Mr Bruton said during an October 1996 phone conversation that the Irish and British position on Sinn Fein’s entry into talks was “bleak” as they are so far apart.

The Taoiseach also said that following the conversation with Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, he was convinced that a ceasefire and peace was “within grasp”, and warned Mr Major that if they miss the chance, that it will “not be easy” to get back to it.

The latest records release also showed that UK government officials anticipated a “period of turbulence” following the election of Bill Clinton as US president in 1992 because of his views on Northern Ireland, the records also revealed.

In the letter to an Irish-American group, written just weeks before he won the presidential vote, Mr Clinton had called on the UK government to “establish more effective safeguards against the wanton use of lethal force” in the province.

The letter was circulated among officials at the Northern Ireland Office who suggested the UK ambassador to the US should seek an early meeting with Mr Clinton so his views were not left to “calcify, unchallenged”.

The declassified state papers also revealed that the new powersharing executive at Stormont was described in 1999 as being like the Starship Enterprise – going where “man has not gone before”.

Civil servants in Northern Ireland were warned there was a risk that relations between ministers in the devolved administration could degenerate into “continual attrition between and within unionist and nationalist blocs”.

It also emerged that Northern Ireland Office ministers wrote to the Treasury in 1998 and 1999 seeking assurances that it would cover the spiralling costs of the Bloody Sunday Inquiry.

However, the Treasury resisted the pressure to meet the rising costs, suggesting instead the NIO look to find savings within its own budget.

Published by anthonyhayble

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