It is probably obvious why I chose to speak on Northern Ireland today. Two months ago, on Good Friday, we saw the historic agreement reached in Belfast between the British and Irish Governments and the political parties in Northern Ireland. A month ago, the agreement was ratified in referendums north and south of the border. And a week today, Northern Ireland will go to the polls to elect its new Assembly.

What I plan to do today is to draw out some of the background to these events, drawing on my personal experience. I certainly won't inflict on you a full historical perspective: that would go back. But I was lucky enough to serve as the Prime Minister's Principal Private Secretary in Downing Street from 1992 up until August last year, so I saw many of the events that led up to the Good Friday agreement from a unique position.

The first point I want to bring out is the huge commitment of time and effort made by both John Major and Tony Blair, and the very real courage they showed in pushing the peace process forward. Time is one of the most precious of things for Prime Ministers: there is a never ending stream of meetings, visitors, papers, decisions. Yet both of them accorded Northern Ireland a very high priority. They both visited Northern Ireland frequently, far more so than any of their predecessors. Both saw all the party leaders regularly: the politics of Northern Ireland mean that when a Prime Minister sees one Party leader he must see them all—and Northern Irish politicians love to talk!

The initial task was a daunting one. In 1992, when I joined the Prime Minister's office, it was not long after the IRA had launched a mortar bomb into the Downing Street garden, narrowly missing the Cabinet Room—and one of my first tasks was to oversee a project to replace every window in Downing Street with bomb-proof glass. In Northern Ireland itself there were all too frequent sectarian killings and attacks on the security forces.

At that time, we were nearing at the end of the talks process under the chairmanship of Sir Ninian Stephens. That had produced some progress—including the first time that the constitutional parties in Northern Ireland had sat together at the same table with the British and Irish Governments. But there simply was not enough agreement between the parties for the talks to continue.

As we entered 1993, one of the first indications that things might change came when the Government received a remarkable message from the IRA, delivered by an intermediary known as "the link". This was to the effect that the IRA accepted that the armed struggle would not succeed and wanted to explore ways of entering political dialogue.

I remember when we took this message in to John Major in the Cabinet Room. He recognised its significance but he was understandably cautious. He had no intention of conducting secret negotiations with the IRA, and was adamant that any messages passed back must reflect the Government's publicly stated policies. This we did, and a series of messages was passed to and fro.

It was a frustrating exchange. On the one hand, the IRA seemed genuinely interested in how they could enter political dialogue. But on the other hand, their actions didn't marry up with their words. The Government sent one message in March 1993 making clear that any dialogue could only follow an end to violence, only to see the IRA explode a bomb in Lancashire the next day, killing two young boys.

At the same time, extensive negotiations had begun with the Irish Government, who believed from their contacts that a clear statement of the two Governments' positions could lead the IRA to end violence and enable Sinn Fein to join the political process. John Hume too was pursuing a similar objective. But getting agreement was difficult on both the nationalist and the unionist sides: the depths of suspicion were very deep

While these negotiations were going on, the violence in Northern Ireland worsened. In October 1993, the IRA let off a bomb at a fish and chip shop in the Shankill Road, killing nine bystanders – including two more children - as well as one of the IRA bombmakers. There was fury when Gerry Adams was one of the pall-bearers at the bomber's funeral. And then loyalist paramilitaries killed eight people in a Catholic bar in Greysteel. It became the worst month for killings in Northern Ireland for nearly 20 years.

This violence did, however, have the effect of stepping up the pressure for a new solution. Neither community in Northern Ireland felt they could go on as they had. So, there was a flurry of meetings between Prime Ministers and between officials in Dublin, , in Belfast, and indeed in Brussels during a European Union Council meeting. Agreement was finally reached during a day-long series of phone-call between John Major and Albert Reynolds, the last one at eight o'clock in the evening. I remember that well because we then had to work through the night drafting press statements and parliamentary statements, finally delivering them to John Major in his flat at dawn just before the Taoiseach arrived that morning to launch the Joint Declaration in Downing Street.

The negotiations were an eye-opener for me. My background is on the international side of the Treasury, and I've done my fair share of negotiating communiqués at summit meetings. A depressing job, since you know the communiqué will normally be forgotten within a day or two. But not so with texts relating to Northern Ireland. It's a sobering experience to realise that people may kill each other over the words being negotiated.

1994 thus started with the parties considering how to react to the Downing Street Declaration. The unionists were initially very suspicious. But the leader of the UUP, Jim Molyneaux, managed to carry the day by emphasing the constitutional guarantees that had never previously been formally endorsed by the Irish Government. Sinn Fein did not seem to know how to react. Essentially they stalled, demanding what they termed "clarification"—most of which could be answered by quoting from the Downing Street Declaration itself. Violence continued, though thankfully at a lower level than in the ghastly months towards the end of 1993.

Finally in August 1994, we began to receive indications that an IRA ceasefire was imminent. Even at this stage, though, there was an attempt to explode another large bomb on the British mainland to mark the end of the campaign. Thankfully, the bomb was discovered before it reached the mainland, and the IRA declared their ceasefire anyway.

The British Government reacted to the ceasefire with a variety of measures: lifting the broadcasting ban on Sinn Fein; withdrawing exclusion orders; transferring some prisoners to Northern Ireland; reducing the number of troops; and eventually meeting Sinn Fein representatives at both official and Ministerial level. But the reaction of the Sinn Fein leaders to these measures was disappointing, perhaps reflecting their long exile from the political process. They always decried what had been done as inadequate, and never claimed credit for it—which might have helped them win more support among their members. Nonetheless, the ceasefire held, at least in terms of stopping bombings and sectarian killings, though punishment beatings and knee-cappings continued.

It took a while to get used to the fact that the British Government was now dealing with Sinn Fein. I remember the shock I felt when I returned to my desk one day and asked our switchboard for any messages. They said "Gerry Adams rang you, shall I get him back for you?"

Negotiations and discussions to follow up the Downing Street Declaration continued throughout the rest of 1994 and early 1995. Some of these were routine, some dramatic, and some had elements of farce. One of the more memorable "yes minister" problems I had to deal with was what to do when Ian Paisley staged a sit-in in the Cabinet Room. He called John Major a liar and refused to apologise, so John Major walked out. Ian Paisley continued to sit there and read his prepared statement to the empty room. I waited with the security guards outside, rather nervously wondering what would happen—he's a big man! Thankfully, he finished his statement and left to speak to the press in the street outside.

The negotiations with the Irish Government were disrupted in early 1995 by the leaking of a draft text to The Times, who published it in a way designed to highlight the fears of the Unionists, describing it as "the engine for the reunification of Ireland." When first editions of The Times were circulated late the night before, it caused outrage. John Major had to go across to the House of Commons and hold a meeting just before midnight to calm the fears of anxious backbenchers.

The decommissioning of paramilitary arms remained one of the big stumbling blocks, and made for slow progress during 1995. The unionists refused to negotiate with Sinn Fein while the IRA retained a huge arsenal of weapons, while Sinn Fein and the IRA argued that decommissioning could only follow a political settlement. Eventually, in November 1995, the British and Irish Governments agreed on a way to take this forward. Once again, this agreement was reached in a telephone call, this time between John Major and John Bruton at 7pm on Budget day the night before President Clinton was due to arrive for a visit to London. So the Irish team immediately flew over to London and we had to host a press conference in Downing Street at about 11 o'clock that night. We were getting used to that sort of thing—though finding a bottle of Bushmills when all the pubs had shut proved a new challenge!

President Clinton duly arrived the following day, for a visit that included hugely successful trips to both Belfast and Dublin. It also included a dinner at Number 10 that was notable in retrospect for being the first time that Tony Blair and Cherie visited Downing Street. He had been elected Labour Party leader some months earlier, and had made a significant change to Labour's team on Northern Ireland, bringing in Mo Mowlam as shadow Secretary of State and emphasising his commitment to a bi-partisan approach.

The international body on decommissioning, chaired by George Mitchell, reported in early 1996 and recommended a system whereby decommissioning would take place during all-party negotiations rather than as a precondition. But any prospect of Sinn Fein entering the talks was stopped when the IRA ended its ceasefire and exploded a large bomb at Canary Wharf in London, killing two people and causing extensive damage. Nonetheless, the all-party negotiations started without them in June 1996 under Mitchell's chairmanship. They made very slow progress, and eventually ground to a halt as it became clear no-one was willing to make concessions ahead of the UK's general election.

As you know, the general election took place on 1 May last year, with Tony Blair being returned with a large majority. He immediately demonstrated that he too would accord Northern Ireland a very high priority. His first official visit outside London was to Belfast, and he became fully involved in discussions with the party leaders and with the Irish Government. He made it clear that the all-party talks would proceed: Sinn Fein would be able to join them only if there were a renewed IRA ceasefire.

In mid-July last year the IRA did declare a new ceasefire, and Sinn Fein entered the all-party talks when they resumed in September. Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party refused to enter talks with Sinn Fein, as did the small UK Unionist Party: they had already twice tried to have parties linked with loyalist paramilitaries thrown out of the talks. But, significantly, the Ulster Unionist Party under David Trimble remained at the table.

By this stage I had left Number 10 to prepare for taking up my job here, so I won't try to cover the subsequent negotiations in detail. What I would highlight is the key personal role that Tony Blair played. He attended the opening of the talks in Belfast, and he agreed to a meeting with Sinn Fein in London. When progress seemed to be getting bogged down, he - and the Taoiseach - intervened personally to inject new momentum.

Above all, he played a key role in the final negotiations. He had set a deadline for agreement, and when it became clear that the talks were at risk of breaking down, he—and the Taoiseach—flew to Belfast to take personal charge of the negotiations. That's a pretty remarkable thing for a politician to do: it risked associating him personally if the talks had failed. But, as is now well-known, he was able to secure agreement after working throughout two days and nights of often very tense negotiations.

Looking from my position over here, I was struck by the way the outcome was crafted so that all the parties felt they had achieved something. The unionists, for example, got the assembly in Northern Ireland that they sought, though with many safeguards to protect the position of minorities. But there is also a key linkage to the North/South Ministerial Council that is important to the nationalists. This linkage ensures that the assembly cannot simply refuse to cooperate with the Dublin Government.

The decision to release paramilitary prisoners within two years was also a remarkable step, and one of great significance within both the loyalist and republican movements. This cannot have been an easy decision to take, though it has been made clear that prisoners will be only be released if they and their organisations are observing a ceasefire and co-operating on decommissioning.

As you know, the agreement was put to a referendum in Northern Ireland and in the Irish Republic last month. It was passed overwhelmingly in the Irish Republic, and achieved over 70% support in Northern Ireland. Tony Blair campaigned actively to help bring about that result—including making one joint visit with John Major. And there was the remarkable sight of David Trimble and John Hume sharing a platform in support of the agreement, something that would have seemed impossible a few years ago.

Next week we have the elections to the new assembly. We don't yet know how the votes on the unionist side will split between David Trimble's UUP and Ian Paisley's DUP. Or indeed how the vote will split on the nationalist side between Sinn Fein and the SDLP. That will crucially determine the nature of the assembly, and the ease with which the new First Minister can secure agreements and govern effectively.

There are of course a number of other issues still to be decided. Decommissioning is perhaps the most divisive. And handling the marching season will once again be difficult. There will inevitably be bumps on the road ahead. But that should not disguise the huge achievements that have been made. And the individual efforts that have helped to bring that about. Efforts by Party leaders like John Hume and David Trimble, who played a key role in selling the agreement to unionists despite the splits in his own party. Efforts by Church leaders. Efforts by Ministers and officials under both Conservative and Labour Governments in Britain, and by their counterparts in the Irish Government. But you will not be surprised that I have highlighted the role played by the two Prime Ministers I worked for, John Major and Tony Blair. John Major, who persevered with the peace process despite it being unpopular with a large segment of his own party and threatening Ulster Unionist support for his government. And Tony Blair who carried the process forward to its conclusion, showing himself determined to do whatever he could to secure agreement, and willing to take personal risks such as going to Belfast to oversee the final negotiations.

I should like to say a word of thanks for all the support given in Australia throughout the process. Sir Ninian Stephens played an important role right at the start. Australian Parliamentarians and others have come out in strong support of what the British and Irish Governments have been doing. And the Australian Government has consistently backed the efforts of the two Governments, including of course by making a generous contribution to the International Fund for Ireland. We are grateful for all this support.

As Tony Blair has said, what we saw over Easter was an irresistible force meeting an immovable object. The irresistible force was the political will for peace in Northern Ireland. The immovable object was the legacy of the past. Thankfully, the desire for peace proved the stronger. Northern Ireland has suffered some 30 years of terrible bloodshed. Bloodshed that has spilled over into the rest of the UK and indeed into Europe: we do not forget the two young Australian tourists gunned down in Holland in the mistaken belief they were off-duty soldiers.

But now, in less than a week's time, we will see elections to a new democratic assembly. An assembly created as part of an agreement that recognises that all traditions in Northern Ireland are valid, and all deserve respect and dignity. An agreement that reflects the hope of the overwhelming majority of people in Northern Ireland to live in peace and to bring up their children out of the shadow of fear. And it gives us heart to know that so many people in this country share that hope.

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