John informed us that his first words to Tony Blair were: "We will not negotiate with a f***ing fax machine!"

As the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement approaches, MARK DURKAN, who went on to become SDLP leader and Deputy First Minister, reveals some of the pressures, dealings and suspected double-dealings at play, as the Northern parties, the two governments and Senator George Mitchell struggled desperately to meet their final deadline.

It was early evening on Monday 30 March 1998 when the fax machine in the SDLP support office in Castle Buildings noisily spooled pages of text from 10 Downing Street. The cover page stated that the contents were for David Trimble and John Hume's eyes only.

Scanning the fax as it churned, I could see that Downing Street were proffering a draft text for a Strand One agreement that was clearly based on the conversations David Trimble had been having with them in the days when he was missing from the talks "on Westminster business". I asked our talks secretary, Eilis Haughey, to make a number of copies for our negotiating team. Meanwhile, I immediately alerted John Hume and Seamus Mallon to this very worrying development from our point of view.

John and Seamus were rightly enraged that Downing Street was being both high-handed and one-sided. The detail of the paper (or lack of it) reflected the unsubstantive musings that we had previously heard from David Trimble and the UUP as they tried to posit a devolved Assembly model without an Executive.

It had seemed clear to us that the UUP wanted to avoid "Executive power-sharing" which they had opposed under the Sunningdale Agreement. They had been using comparison with the then emerging Welsh devolution model of committees and committee secretaries rather than ministers. Of course, we suspected that one motive in this approach was also to avoid an all-island ministerial entity.

We had also exposed their thinking that even if "committee secretary" posts were allocated to parties using the D'Hondt method, the power of decision making for a government department would rest with a majority on the committee.

Conversely, they suspected that we were determined to prove Seamus Mallon's prediction from the start of the Talks that it was going to be "Sunningdale for slow learners".

The months of negotiations on the three-strand agenda which began in September 1997 had seen repetitive circular arguments, not least in Strand One. That Strand focused on governance in Northern Ireland was chaired by the NIO Minister of State, Paul Murphy, rather than George Mitchell.

The SDLP were the only nationalists actually negotiating in Strand One. Under the Talks rules, the Irish government were excluded from Strand One. Sinn Fein had made no Strand One submissions but tabling or referencing their Strand Two papers on a united Ireland. In the "Plenary" or formal all-party sessions they, mainly via Martin McGuinness, had virtually heckled the SDLP proposals and arguments, lecturing us that the principle of consent was a deviant or corrupt error and railing against any devolution models as a "return to Stormont". Their pointed criticism of our proposals had arguably become less strident and more patronising as it was clear that we were the only party insisting on an inclusive executive.

The UUP's opposition to having Ministers or an Executive in an Assembly had become more emphatic as we stressed the case for elective inclusion of parties using a formula like D'Hondt or Saint-Lague. Alliance, while favouring Ministers and a cabinet-style Executive, had been against an inclusive Executive arguing instead for a voluntary coalition model.

We replied to the repeated complaints of shock at our inclusion proposals by arguing that they were a variant or development of the different elective eligibility for appointing ministers that we had proposed in the Brooke/Mayhew Talks. That option of three people elected in the same way as MEPs having the right to appoint ministers (including themselves) had been included in a working text for plenary negotiations  from a four-party sub group including Peter Robinson of the DUP, Jeffrey Donaldson of the UUP, Steve Mc Bride of the Alliance and myself for the SDLP.

We also knew there was some government scepticism at our proposals although this was usually presented as doubt that other parties would ever agree to them. While he was not chairing Strand One, George Mitchell was counselling us with similar improbability.

So, here we now were on 30 March with a Talks deadline finally set for 9 April (which I predicted would run to a Long Good Friday) with an attempt by Downing Street to scope Strand One much more to the UUP's posture than our strongly argued position. As well as wondering what Tony Blair and Jonathan Powell were playing at, we were also asking what David Trimble was up to if he was hatching this with Downing Street while we were engaged in bilaterals with the UUP and trilaterals with Paul Murphy as well.

Protest to Mitchell

It did not take long for our negotiating team to take stock of the Downing Street fax. Its anaemic outline indicated that we had a deeper problem than not yet feeling the traction we needed for our inclusive power-sharing model. But its dispatch also raised questions about the centre of gravity for the remainder of the Talks process and the integrity of the negotiations.

We immediately protested our profound concerns to George Mitchell, the British Government and the Irish Government.

Mitchell was clear that our protest was the first he knew about the Downing Street intervention. In his measured manner, the Senator acknowledged our misgivings and accepted John Hume's point that any Prime Ministerial involvement in the remaining period should be by direct presence in the multi-party talks. John and George both said that they would make this point directly to Downing Street.

George Mitchell wondered if this British government misstep in Strand One had been unintentionally encouraged by the Irish government's insistence that the two governments should now exclusively draft the Strand Two part of the pending "Mitchell Paper". He was due to share a draft with the parties that week to frame the final negotiations down to the Holy Thursday deadline. He was  politically unhappy at being denied the scope to put negotiating room and balance into the Strand Two text which would bear his name. He was now also worried by this evidence of a  British government attempts to draft a Strand One outline  which did not adequately reflect the range or strength of propsoals made by parties like us.

That was not to say that as an independent chair he was endorsing our proposals. He confided to us that he could not envisage the UUP moving much to accept our proposals and encouraged us to consider pragmatic adjustment. The Senator was surprised when Seamus Mallon and I told him that we had not been rebuffed by Trimble on the previous Friday when we first shared with him our idea for joint First Ministers to be elected by the Assembly with cross-community support.

David Trimble's main criticism after reading my 20-point job description for a joint and equal office was that the language was weighted too much towards functions and responsibilities. He had said it would be interesting to see it couched in terms of power and specifically talked about patronage. George found this interesting but, like ourselves, wondered how it squared with the Downing Street fax which the SDLP suspected he was in on.

Next, we met Paul Murphy as the Strand One chair. We already had received a second fax version from Downing Street. While some amendments had been made to reflect more possible consideration of options we were putting, this did not assuage our concerns. Like Senator Mitchell, Paul Murphy had not known about the first fax until we alerted him. He did know about the second fax which may have been influenced by his own contact with Downing Street to relay our indignation and, perhaps, his own misgivings.

We stressed that this behaviour was causing serious confidence questions about how the British government were conducting things. These questions were not just about how they might be trying to sideline substantive proposals from the only nationalists actually negotiating in Strand One, but about an apparent disregard for the integrity of the inclusive talks process in which we were all meant to be involved. This was going to be unfair to everyone else while rewarding David Trimble whose personal engagement in the negotiations had become desultory with mixed mood contributions that sometimes upstaged what his party colleagues had seemed to be negotiating towards.

Ten days to go

It was hard to see how we were going to get sufficient shape on things in the overall talks in the ten days that remained when we were in this state in Strand One. Paul Murphy and George Mitchell both reminded us that it was we who had most urged that a deadline be set. George had replied to our pleas for a deadline with "I am Humpty Dumpty. I can jump only once and I have to get that right otherwise there will be a mess that you won't be able to put back together".

A lot was meant to hinge on the Mitchell paper later that week but our hopes for that were now shaken. We shared our concerns with the Irish government too, pointing out that an inadequate Strand One would puncture any meaningful Strand Two. I said that we would not be able to pretend that the tyre was only flat at the bottom. We agreed that we needed to re-composite our Strand One proposals including more focus on our newly developed idea of joint and equal First Ministers from which Trimble, intriguingly, had not resiled when we put it to him days earlier.

We arranged to have a comprehensive session with Paul Murphy the following morning. John Hume would leave that meeting to go to Downing Street to register feelings directly there. The rest of us remained with Paul Murphy going over everything, all three strands, rights and equality frameworks, policing, justice and decommissioning. He joked that we were using him as a hostage for brainwashing until John Hume came back from Downing Street.

John informed us that his first words to Tony Blair were "We will not negotiate with a f***ing fax machine!" Blair's were to the effect that the paper - both versions - was now a non-paper, withdrawn completely. John told Tony Blair that the two governments needed to either move the Talks somewhere else for the final week (we all hated Castle Buildings) or both premiers needed to camp in Castle Buildings for that week.

He told us that he also reminded Tony Blair that any agreement would have to be put to referendum, north and south. This, of course, had been John's idea and was in the ground rules for the Talks. He explained our rationale that an inclusive and substantive outcome from inclusive talks would secure a better level of endorsement than the less substantive, less credibly sustainable models he had toyed with. This was not just about insisting on the validity of our proposals which the British government seemed to want us to dilute. He also assured Blair that we were conscious that Unionists would have to be able to credibly endorse any agreement if the dual referendum was to achieve its historic purpose.

New drafts and more anxiety

So, with only days to go to the supposedly pivotal Mitchell Paper we were now deeply anxious. Seamus Mallon asked Sean Farren, Denis Haughey and myself to reset our Strand One proposals to more deliberately reflect some of the thinking we had heard from others and to answer some of the concerns which had been voiced - with or without credibility.

We drafted versions with and without a cabinet style Executive Committee. When Seamus Mallon and I had shown David Trimble our ideas for joint First Ministers, he had seemed to concede that there was merit in having some agreed coordination across departments and for lateral relationships including Strands Two and Three and the EU. But he was still resisting an actual committee of ministers. So we had to prepare for possibly getting agreement on ministers but not an actual cabinet.

We also sought to balance the individual executive authority we wanted for ministers with expansive roles for departmental committees including legislative, policy development, inquiry powers and budget transparency. Furthermore we drafted the stipulation that the Assembly would be the primary source of devolved authority. This was partly to answer the scare claims about rogue ministers and solo runs. In particular we had it in mind that the Assembly must be the ultimate budgetary authority not a Finance Minister, especially if there might not be an actual Executive Committee.

Around the Talks table, we had also posited that all ministers should commit to a common pledge of office before the Assembly. This was not just to meet concerns about miinisters only acting to partisan agendas. It was also to frame standards including in relation to equality. I returned to further drafting the pledge of office.

In the months of arguments about ministers, collective coordination and D'Hondt we had not fully answered what the the respective roles of a first and second minister might be. Suggestions from some had been that one might manage internal government coordination while the other would coordinate external relationships. There was also the issue that their appointment by D'Hondt could lead to two unionists or two nationalists in such roles. Alliance used this possibility to reinforce their argument for a voluntary coalition.

My idea for joint and equal first ministers to be jointly elected by the Assembly  before other ministers would be appointed by parties via D'Hondt answered that problem as well as other questions. That idea had been inspired only weeks earlier after I saw the pictures of Seamus Mallon and David Trimble jointly visiting Poyntzpass on their constituency borderline after the LVF murder of Philip Allen and Damian Trainor. I had said at the Talks table that morning that Philip and Damian's friendship should be a parable for the society we could create out of an agreement. When I first shared the idea with party colleagues in the second week of March, they supported it readily. Some saw the opportunity to specifically write what we were calling "parallel consent" into an agreement as the election threshold for the joint first ministers.

We also  returned to finessing the possible terms for showing cross-community support for key measures. The fact that the agreed talks rules included a formula for "sufficient consensus" showing cross-community support made it likely thst parties might also want a similar safeguard in institutions emerging from those talks.

This included particular engagement by us with John Alderdice, Alliance leader on how a Petition of Concern could be a trigger for a special Assembly  proofing committee to examine concerns about equality or human rights in respect of a policy or bill rather than just act as a veto.

We shared sample drafts, as they mutated, with both governments and the Independent Chairs. We also tested other parties on how aspects of our recast proposals might work for them and worked on rephrasing as appropriate. They wondered if we were doing this in the hope of influencing the content of the pending Mitchell Paper or for alternatves or additives in response to it. We said ideally the former but more likely the latter. We did not let other parties know about the Downing Street fax and how perturbed we were.

Laying down markers

The Plenary talks sessions that week received updates on when we might have the Mitchell Paper with Friday evening finally stipulated. They also allowed parties to lay down markers about particular issues, often invoking the rubric that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. Seamus Mallon tried to flush everyone else out on policing which parties and governments, for differing reasons, had avoided actually addressing in spite of several attempts by us. The UUP predictably warned about decommissioning, prisoners, any move to question the status quo on policing and resorted to contending thst Strand Two should just be a subset of Strand Three as the  EU framework already provided for common standards and programmes between member states.

Sinn Fein returned to warning us and others about the folly of engaging in Strand One and looking at amending Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish Constitution, cast doubt on the viability or relevance of any political agreement but talked of the peace process still needing, and able, to progress in terms of demilitarisation, prison releases and other confidence building measures. These points also came over in a trilateral between the SDLP, Sinn Fein and the Irish Government that Friday afternoon when we still thought the Mitchell paper was issuing that evening. There was no enthusiasm for our idea to include regeneration opportunities for security force sites as a normalisation dividend for the whole community.

At the Plenary on the Friday evening, Senator Mitchell formally advised us all that the Mitchell Paper was not now going to issue. He intimated that it could do with further work - some based on recent exchanges. He also indicated that he had a precautionary rethink about circulating it on a Friday evening with Talks not scheduled until Monday.

George seemed to be masking his own concerns well but readily acknowledged the critical questioning which  predictably came from parties. There was a feeling that we now might be going down a snake at precisely the turn we needed to go up a ladder. George asked everyone to be measured in their public commentary as he apologised but stressed that he still judged he was making the right call. He also encouraged us all to keep up our own thinking about our options and others' positions over the weekend. Afterwards, he aked Sean Farren and me if we would still stay in Belfast over the weekend as had been the plan when we expected his paper. We agreed.

Trilateral exchange

The following morning Sean called me to say that George Mitchell wanted the two of us to meet him in Castle Buildings that afternoon. When we arrived he told us with cordial bluntness that he had real doubts about where this was going. Accordingly, he was unsure about the merits of tabling a paper that would be disowned by parties without him even being able to honestly claim ownership himself. I thought of his Humpty Dumpty line.

He was worried about issuing a paper he had his own doubts about as the cue for the Prime Minister and Taoiseach to helicopter into Castle Buildings. He was honest that his key doubt was not really about the quality of the paper which was only a prop to aid negotiation.

His decision on whether to go for a soft landing or tell the premiers to come for final negotiations was going to depend on the next meeting. This was to be a trilateral exchange between the two UUP negotiators, Reg Empey and Dermot Nesbitt, whom he had also invited and ourselves, with him asking serious questions.

George had a sombre smile as he told us that he had a problem reconciling the gap he saw between our respectively stated and mutually critical positions and the fact that we were each still reporting a belief in possible agreement. He was particularly struck by the fact that we Sean and I could keep sharing new draft terms with no evident encouragement of interest coming back.

Reminded of the adage "if you're not confused, you don't understand", he said confusion was easy to admit but his concern was the problem. "This is not going to be about how much I understand at the end but whether I can believe that you want to understand each other, and everyone else, enough to make an agreement viable".

In the exchanges that followed there must have been enough to convince him even though the four of us probably all left with our own doubts; some mutual, some shared.

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