Blair asked Clinton to get Hume to engage with UUP who were ready to ‘talk turkey’ on peace deal

Newly-released confidential files show Tony Blair asked Bill Clinton to encourage John Hume to engage with the UUP who were ready to ‘talk turkey’ about a negotiated peace settlement in the run up to the Good Friday Agreement.

The appeal took place in a private telephone conversation between the US President and the British Prime Minister at a tentative stage in the peace process in early March 1998.

A confidential note of the conversation was sent by John Holmes, the British Prime Minister’s private secretary, to Ken Lindsay, his counterpart in the Northern Ireland Office.

The discussion took place on March 9, 1998, and the note - sent the following day - has now been declassified by the British Government as part of its annual New Year State Papers release.

John Hume and Bill Clinton.

Mr. Blair told Mr. Clinton the peace process was ‘still moving along’ but that he hoped the US premier could persuade Mr. Hume to engage with the leader of the UUP David Trimble. The conversation took place ahead of the annual St. Patrick’s Day engagements in Washington.

According to Mr. Holmes, Mr. Blair ‘hoped that when the President saw the parties, he would keep the pressure on all of them to negotiate realistically and to engage with each other’.

“It would be particularly helpful if he could press Hume to engage with the UUP. The Unionists were now ready to talk turkey with the SDLP, although not yet with Sinn Féin. We had set a tight deadline, but he thought it was possible to meet it,” the communiqué recounts.

Mr. Blair expressed concern about the potential for violence to capsize the process.

“We had to move quickly, since the process was constantly at the mercy of violence from one quarter or another,” the note relates.

But he said a recent intervention by the Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams had helped to set realistic expectations for what might be delivered by peace talks.

“The latest press article by Adams had been helpful in that, while it set out unacceptable demands, it at least acknowledged that a united Ireland would not come out of this process, and that there should be a settlement involving both North and South.”

During the tête-à-tête Mr. Clinton urged Mr. Clinton to put pressure on the republican movement on the necessity to avoid a return to violence.

“Clinton said that he would do this. The problem was of course that, at the moment, violence was coming from quarters we could not control,” the letter states.

The US President asked if the timetable for reaching an agreement by mid-April was realistic.

Mr. Blair said it was ‘extremely ambitious but there was no choice but to press on’.

In a chillingly prescient remark, given the atrocity in Omagh that would occur in August of that year, Mr. Blair said that his ‘fear was that some major and tramautic act of violence could still derail the process’.

They also discussed another visit by Mr. Clinton to the north with Mr. Blair stating that ‘he remembered vividly the impact of the President’s visit in 1995’.