(You can follow Brian Rowan on Twitter by clicking here)
John Steele didn’t say a lot at the Better Friday Agreement conference, but he said enough to make his point.
In his opening remarks he emphasised the word former in his titles – former Controller of Prisons and former Director of Security Policy in the NIO.
He retired in 1998 – in that year that is remembered for the political agreement on Good Friday and for another key moment in the journey this place and its people are taking away from war and towards peace.
As the man in charge of the jails he admitted walking the wings of the Maze in a kind of quick step; no hanging around, and on Friday he was telling part of his story to an audience that included loyalists and republicans who had been held in that prison.
In his description of the prisoners he used the word ‘terrorist’, making clear he wouldn’t use the term ‘political’.
As he spoke, I scribbled some of his comments into my notebook, including the following: “Excuse me using the word terrorist. That’s what I’m used to.”
He had more to say, including that he believed his time in the Prison Service to be the most important in his career.
Steele was invited to Friday’s conference by Seanna Walsh one of the longest serving IRA prisoners who now works for the project Coiste na nlarchimi.
The idea was to look back on the agreement at what has worked, but also to think ahead to the next steps.
Steele accepted the invitation – others didn’t including the UUP, DUP and Alliance.
There is no good reason not to talk, to stay away from events like this, and Steele proved that you can step inside a room without having to compromise on your position.
He didn’t alter his words or thinking, but told it as he wanted to tell it, and he was heard without heckles or interruption.
The listening audience accepted that this was his take on things – his version of events.
Steele recalled talking to prisoners, described the importance of Home Leave – most importantly that loyalists and republicans returned to the jails – and also the significance of a BBC television documentary ‘Enemies Within’ made by Peter Taylor that showed “the regime wasn’t a problem”.
I asked him about the release of prisoners as part of the agreement and he said this was “essential”.
The only debate at the time was about “all out now or over a period”, and Steele knew the former would do serious damage to the referendum vote.
So, the argument for phased releases prevailed.
On Friday, John Steele said what he had to say and then left, leaving others to think about his comments and also the power and influence of civil servants.
“Tony Blair was thinking about immediate release,” 1981 IRA hunger striker Laurence McKeown told me – “and I think John seemed to imply that it was through his efforts that he dissuaded Tony Blair from that.
“So, I think what it really flagged up was that role of civil servants – the non-elected, non-representative people who have a massive say,” McKeown said.
The speakers on Friday stretched across a wide frame – loyalists Jackie McDonald and William ‘Plum’ Smith, Conall McDevitt of the SDLP, Sinn Fein MLA Alex Maskey, the commentator Roy Garland, Dr Avila Kilmurray, who was a member of the Women’s Coalition at the time of the agreement and is now Director of the Community Foundation, Martin Mansergh, who had a key Dublin role in the developing peace process, and republicans Kevin Mulgrew and Feilim O hAdhmaill.
O hAdhmaill joked about the charismatic qualities of his speaking when in one jail discussion at the time of the agreement he argued against the deal, but was on the wrong side of a 48-2 vote.
What also needs to be said is that the loyalists who spoke on Friday didn’t tailor their thoughts to suit the occasion or to be popular.
McDonald – still smarting from the flag vote at the City Hall – urged republicans in their decision making to think about the other community, and told them there had to be “Orange slices in the Green cake”, while Smith commented:
“As a loyalist I’m more confident now than I ever was that Northern Ireland will remain in the United Kingdom.”
Before Friday’s conference Seanna Walsh had told me that it was time to “list our problems – name them – and then together find ways to resolve them”.
He was setting the context for an event that was a kind of stock-taking exercise – a discussion about the good and the bad since 1998 and what still needs to happen.
Avila Kilmurray summed up the period since the agreement in the words: “Much done, still much to do.”
Of course she is right and, in their contributions, Stormont MLAs Alex Maskey and Conall McDevitt pointed towards the next steps.
McDevitt described an urgent need to agree what is meant by reconciliation, spoke of truth and accountability and, using the recent Cardiff Talks as an example, described the importance of independent mediation in helping with difficult conversations.
Maskey talked about flags, parades and the past and how everyone had to play a part in trying to answer the most difficult of questions.
“All parties have to play their role in this. No one has an escape route,” he said.
From the floor Michael Culbert, a former IRA prisoner and Director of Coiste na nlarchimi, raised the thorny issues of HET, arrests and prosecutions.
It was a big comment coming at the very end of the conference and it was left hanging, but, I suppose, the real question is, would there have been an agreement in ’98 if loyalists and republicans knew what was still around the corner?
Fifteen years on there is much still to be discussed, and it is always good to talk in whatever room and with whoever is in it.
(You can follow Brian Rowan on Twitter by clicking here)
I’m not sure about some of the analysis here. The assumption that it was the influence of civil servants like John Steele that was key to decisions about the prisoners, for example. I am also left with a sense of people not having moved on from the Belfast Agreement while much in the rest of the world has changed. More conversations are needed, that at least is clear…….
Hi John – There is a wider context to the Steele comments. I understand entirely that the prisoner release negotiation wasn’t down to just him, and that the different parties all had their thinking and positions. We heard one of the other contributors on Friday describe Tony Blair and Jonathan Powell as the ultimate in political pragmatists with not many bottom lines. You will know, from inside the talks, that the prisoner release negotiation became a big issue in the closing hours, and my sense is that Steele was making sure that Blair and Powell had a realistic position – that he was conscious of the need to protect the referendum and make sure a scenario did not develop in which too much was offered/given at the price of losing the unionists and others.I’m sure others were saying the same things. My wider point about Friday’s conference is about talking, and my question: Why did John Steele, with his prisons and security background, feel able to attend when others stayed away? What is it they fear about dialogue and discussions?
I don’t know the answer with any certainty, Barney, however it may not be anything to do with fear of dialogue and discussion. I could imagine that reading the programme to which they were invited some people might well think it was raking over old embers from the past rather than a conversation that is taking people forward in the context of the present and future dispensation. Why would they want to get into a conversation with John Steele who represented NIO direct rule so long ago when there has been devolution of Justice for some years and he has been out of the picture for a decade and a half? Why would Alliance which has the Justice Ministry want to be engaged in a discussion panel with the UDP and Women’s Coalition who have not existed for years? The programme just has a feel of being out of date and overly focussed on ex-prisoners and ex-questions.
John – I suppose the questions only become ex-questions when they have been answered. This process has turned too many pages without reading them. Former prisoners still have issues, victims have questions, and flags, parades and the past keep getting pushed away. Maybe we should finish this book before starting another one.
On the road to the Belfast Agreement the PUP,UDP
and Sinn Fein had to complete almost a year of exploratory talks to prove we
were committed to “exclusively democratic means”. The first 4 months
we were confined to meeting senior civil servants and John Steele lead the
British Government side. It was not until the 22nd March 1995 that Michael
Ancram the first British Minister graced us with his presence so it brought
back a lot of memories when I met John Steele again on Friday. I had read over
my notes of those meetings in the early days of negotiations and reminded him
of the incident over the bugging of delegation rooms.
Sinn Fein had walked out alleging that their rooms had been bugged
and that they had discovered signals emitting from their photocopier. The
British Government denied it and Gusty quipped ” If I was going to talks
with the British I would expect them to have the place bugged.” However,
as a delegation we went to the next meeting of exploratory talks with civil servants
to complain and seek assurances that the rooms were not bugged. Stephen Leach
on behalf of the Minister Michael Ancram stated “I can give you assurances
on behalf of H.M.G that the delegation rooms are private and HMG are not
involved in any bugging of delegation rooms. There is nothing for the present
delegation to worry about” We pressed him on it that we needed to be
unequivocal about the matter to which John Steele retorted ” This is a
H.M.G building and if H.M.G. wanted to bug it they would do it and you wouldn’t
even know it.”
Of course we always assumed that rooms were bugged and were always
mindful of it, Sometimes though its good to have rooms bugged because you can
always drop clangers and misleading positions whenever you wanted to muddy the
William Plum Smith