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Brooke / Mayhew Talks (April 1991 to November 1992)
- Summary of Main Events

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Text and Research: Brendan Lynn
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This page contains a summary of the main events associated with the Brooke / Mayhew Talks (April 1991 to November 1992).

Brooke / Mayhew Talks (April 1991 to November 1992) - Summary of Main Events


From April 1991 until November 1992 a series of negotiations took place in attempt to end the political stalemate in Northern Ireland. Those involved included the British and Irish governments as well as representatives from four of Northern Ireland's main political parties - the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), and the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland (APNI). The origins of the talks themselves however date back to the aftermath of the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement (AIA). Both London and Dublin had originally held out some hope that the AIA would eventually provide the stimulus that would allow Northern Ireland politicians to reach a settlement that in turn would allow for devolved powers to be returned to the area once again. But this soon proved not to be the case and instead the AIA led to positions becoming further entrenched. The SDLP welcomed the AIA and was at pains to point out that it would oppose any attempt to undermine the agreement. Unionist reaction was immediate and hostile, and a bitter campaign against the AIA was launched. As part of this campaign Unionist political representatives withdrew from contacts with the British government and made clear they would only agree to enter into negotiations if and when the AIA was suspended. In order to try to find away round this impasse Tom King, then Northern Ireland Secretary, and his successor Peter Brooke were to engage in a round of 'talks about talks' with the local parties. This process was to last from 1988 to 1991 and eventually in early 1991 Brooke was able to declare some measure of success. As a result he announced that an agreement had been reached for formal talks to begin at the end of April 1991.


The initial objective of the discussions was an ambitious one in that the participants had agreed to work to secure 'a new, more broadly based agreement' which would replace the AIA during a ten week gap in the meetings of the Anglo-Irish Intergovernmental Conference (AIIC). As for the agenda the talks were to be divided into three strands: with Strand One dealing with relationships between the parties within Northern Ireland; Strand Two with those relations between North and South; and Strand Three looking at links between London and Dublin. It was expected that all strands would commence within a short period of time and that in the end 'nothing would be agreed until everything was agreed'.

Almost inevitably however, once the negotiations got underway, difficulties soon emerged. These centred on the fact that procedures and arrangements for the talks had not been settled. Thus there were to be wrangles over procedures, the venue for talks and over the choice of an independent chair for the North-South strand. As a result it was to be June before substantive issues could be addressed and the prospects of a breakthrough appeared remote. As a result, due to a meeting of the AIIC scheduled for early July 1991, on 3 July 1991 Brooke was forced to call a halt as Unionists insisted that they could not continue if the AIA was re-activated.

Efforts to resume the process continued and in March 1992 an agreement was reached that they would begin again after the forthcoming British general election which was finally set for April 1992. On their resumption whilst the agenda remained the same the make up of the British and Irish delegation had undergone radical changes. Sir Patrick Mayhew had replaced Brooke as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and with a change in government in Dublin there were also new faces on the Irish ministerial team.

On this occasion with the agenda and arrangements as before the real negotiations began almost immediately but within a short period of time problems soon arose as the negotiations began to address the major issues. To begin with in Strand One there were to be sharp differences between the SDLP and the UUP, DUP and APNI over the arrangements for the governance of Northern Ireland. At the same time in Strand Two the UUP and DUP were adamant that the question of cross-border relations could only be addressed when and if the Irish government agreed to amend those articles in its constitution which they alleged laid territorial claim to Northern Ireland. In reply the Irish delegation made clear that they would only countenance such a move in the event of an overall settlement. By November 1992 with no sign that any agreement was imminent and with a meeting of an AIIC scheduled, Mayhew decided to call a halt to the negotiations on 10 November 1992.


With the exchanges having failed to achieve their objective of reaching a comprehensive settlement not surprisingly there were to be recriminations amongst some of the participants, each eager to blame someone else for the collapse of the talks. At the same time however the British and Irish governments were anxious to take something positive out of the process with both stressing that they believed a basis had been laid for future discussions. To a certain extent this was to be borne out when all-party talks resumed later in the 1990s and the agenda was once again to consist of the three strands of the 1991-1992 period along with the proviso that 'nothing would be agreed until everything was agreed'. In addition the negotiations of 1991-1992 marked the first serious attempt to address some of the key questions since the collapse of the Sunningdale Agreement and the power-sharing Executive in May 1974. Whilst no agreement was reached the very fact that the talks had taken place were in themselves significant. For instance Irish ministers had been able to travel north to Stormont to engage with Unionist representatives in an attempt to end the political stalemate without being met by demonstrations and protests. Similarly a delegation from the UUP had gone to the Republic of Ireland for talks with the Irish government and these marked their first formal discussions in Dublin since 1922. Although the DUP had refused to follow the UUP on its visit to Dublin, on occasions the DUP too had also engaged with the Irish delegation.

Even though it had proved impossible at this juncture to provide answers to problems such as the form of devolved government for Northern Ireland or the exact nature of how relations between the North and South should be managed, significant developments were to occur. For example although the SDLP and the Irish government had been reluctant to abandon the AIA they were also seemingly prepared to explore the possibility of its replacement with a wider settlement. In addition certain elements within Unionism had been forced to consider the need for new thinking if a political settlement was to be found. This meant having to address the need to prove to Nationalist opinion that any new form of devolved government for Northern Ireland would have to ensure they had a meaningful say in its administration. Also the 'Irish dimension' could not be simply ignored and a political structure was needed to manage the relationship between Belfast and Dublin. The difficulty remained however that in the period 1991-1992 the conditions to allow a settlement to emerge did not yet exist. In particular two main obstacles remained to be overcome. Firstly, the level of trust needed to reach a compromise between the different parties at the negotiations had not yet been reached given the level of mutual suspicion. Secondly, even if it had proved possible to reach an agreement its long term prospects of being successful would have to be judged against the background of the ongoing campaigns by Loyalist and Republican paramilitaries. In essence therefore the Brooke / Mayhew talks seemed to hold out the possibility of a political settlement being reached at some point in the future but that time had not yet come.

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