Monthly Archives: January 2023

Oireachtas Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement

19 January, 2023

Statement by Eamonn McKee

Anglo-Irish Division 1986-89

I joined the Department of Foreign Affairs in October 1986 and was assigned to the Political Section of Anglo-Irish Division. The Division had increased its staff numbers to implement the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, notably:

The establishment of the Secretariat of the British Irish Intergovernmental Conference (BIIGC) at Palace Barracks, Belfast. The Secretariat serviced the regular meetings of the Conference and was manned 24-7 by Irish and British officials and staff members.

An expanded team of travelers based out of Iveagh House with specific areas of responsibility derived from the objectives of the Anglo-Irish Agreement. Their reports were vital to the briefings and discussions at the Secretariat and the summit meetings of the BIIGC.

  1. The weekly pattern in the Division entailed the dispatch of travelers early in the week to meet with contacts and to report back. Their reports were compiled on Friday morning along with other reports of contacts and meetings from the embassies in London, Washington, and elsewhere into the weekly brief, known as the ‘Box.’ The Box was copied and circulated to the Government and senior officials on Friday afternoon. That day also saw the return of the team from the Secretariat and the departure of the weekend team to Belfast, under high security.
  1. The background of the Ulster Says No campaign led by the DUP, loyalist protests outside the Secretariat, ongoing paramilitary violence, and allegations of security force collusion and human rights abuses created a sense of purpose and consequence in the Division. Writing speeches and briefing notes, responding to a high level of PQs, attending meetings with official counterparts, NGOs, and groups and party representatives from NI, and responding to acts of violence generated a very full work programme. The SDLP, notably John Hume and Seamus Mallon, were frequent visitors to Dublin. SDLP representatives across Northern Ireland were essential sources of advice and guidance.
  2. As a junior officer, I supported the work of the political traveller, Liam Canniffe. Liam and I worked with members of the SDLP, notably Alastair McDonnell, to develop the Disadvantaged Areas Programme to help direct funds from the International Fund for Ireland to areas most affected by the conflict.
  3. The Department of Foreign Affairs conducted a human resource strategy that ensured that officers who were assigned to Anglo-Irish Division were rotated to related postings (Embassy London and Missions in the United States) and back to the Division on return to HQ. This developed a cadre of officers who had in-depth knowledge of, as well as a range of contacts relating to, the key issues in the peace process. This was an important factor in the negotiations of the GFA and the long process of its implementation.
  4. Following the pattern established by the Department, I was posted as Vice-Consul General Boston in August 1989. I was then transferred to the Embassy Washington in January 1990.
  5. I worked directly with the Political Director at the Embassy Washington, Brendan Scannell. Early tasks included countering Ancient Order of Hibernia critiques of the International Fund for Ireland, the establishment of a funding scheme for Irish emigrant groups in the US, and support for the passage of legislation creating the Morrison visa programme which solved the problem at that time of the undocumented Irish. The Embassy’s relationship with Senator Kennedy, the Speakers O’Neill and Foley, the Congressional Friends of Ireland and related staffers was particularly strong and productive on issues related to Northern Ireland but also on all other issues, from visas to agricultural regulations.
  6. Ambassador Dermot Gallagher had opened lines of communication with Bill Clinton and the Clinton-Gore campaign. At the request of Senator Kennedy’s office, which was providing advice to Clinton-Gore on foreign policy and policy in relation to Northern Ireland, I wrote the draft text for the Clinton-Gore letter on Northern Ireland. Clinton’s presidency transformed the role of the White House with regard to the peace process and gave the Embassy unparalleled access. Brendan Scannell played a key role in this, having developed key contacts from his time as Consulate General in Boston. The Saint Patrick’s Day receptions at the White House were invaluable opportunities for networking and validating the significance of the Peace Process.

Anglo-Irish Division 1996-1999

  1. I returned to Anglo-Irish Division at the request of its then Director, Sean Ó hUigínn, to act as the traveller for the Justice and Security Section. Sean had been the key architect, along with Taoiseach Albert Reynolds, of the Downing Street Declaration, one of the breakthrough documents of the peace process leading to the 1994 ceasefires. This breakthrough built on the courageous outreach of John Hume in the Hume-Adams talks. Issues on my desk included parades (the Government’s submission to the North Commission), Bloody Sunday (the Irish Government’s Assessment of the New Material), policing, administration of justice, use of lethal force by the security forces, and allegations of collusion. I worked closely with a number of key contacts, including Alex Attwood of the SDLP, Don Mullan, Martin O’Brien and the Committee on the Administration of Justice, Jane Winter of British Irish Rights Watch, Brendan McAllister of Mediation Northern Ireland, Resident groups in Belfast, Garvaghy Road, Dunloy, journalists, solicitors, and republican contacts. I travelled extensively, more or less weekly, filing reports for the Box and regularly briefing the Secretariat on current issues and participating in meetings there with NIO officials. I acted as the lead official for the proximity talks on Drumcree 1997-1998. My opposite number was Jonathan Powell, Prime Minister Blair’s Chief of Staff.
  2. In the run-up to the negotiations for the GFA, the new Director of Anglo-Irish Division, Dermot Gallagher, formed the Talks Team. I was a member of that team with particular responsibility for policing, justice and security normalisation. Martin Mansergh worked on the new proposed text for Articles 2 and 3 and I sent him a paper recommending the addition of ‘entitlement’ to the ‘birth right.’ By the time I arrived at Castle Complex, draft text had been agreed to on the policing section of the GFA. I invited Seamus Mallon and Alex Attwood to review it, and they confirmed my concerns. Thereafter I was the lead official negotiating new text with the NIO team. The NIO were focused on policing, that which continued to be effective, whereas I was focused on a future policing service that in its composition and ethos reflected society. Both objectives were essential. This creative tension produced hard bargaining, but a very good outcome regarding the terms of reference for what would become the Patten Commission’s recommendations. I extracted some final concessions at our last negotiation session unaware that PM Blair had instructed his officials that all text be finalised with the exception of the language around the North-South bodies.
  3. Overall, the Patten Commission did an excellent job through extensive consultations and a comprehensive set of recommendations that adhered closely to the terms of reference. Patten himself made this clear on the publication of his report when some unionists expressed surprise at the outcome of the Commission’s work. The post-conflict transition in the security sector is one of the most difficult to achieve and sustain in any peace process. In the formation of the Patten Commission, I insisted on the inclusion of Professor Peter Lynch. I understand that he made a significant contribution that helped eliminate the use of plastic baton rounds. The PSNI is an outstanding example of a successful security sector reform process.
  4. I would like to pay tribute to Alex Attwood and Brian Barrington who helped steer the whole implementation of the Patten Recommendations and the establishment of the Policing Board with a forensic focus and determination. For example, Alex played a particularly crucial role in resolving the issue of the Policing Board’s access to sensitive material involving national security on matters relevant to the Authority and its credibility. As with the Finucane case, the SDLP were determined to ensure that allegations of state collusion in the use of lethal force could not and would not be outside the mechanisms for accountability that it endorsed.
  5. Another crucial factor in the success of the policing transformation was the creation of the Oversight Commission led by former New York police officer John Considine and the Office of the Police Ombudsman under Dame Nuala O’Loan. The Oversight Commission ensured that the recommendations of the Patten Commission were fully implemented and operational on the ground. This provided a vital assurance for the acceptance of the PSNI and the eventual decommissioning of paramilitary weapons.

Consulate General New York, 1999-2001
I was assigned as Press Officer to the Consulate General in New York and returned to HQ in December 2001.

Anglo-Irish Division, 2002-2004
I was again assigned to Anglo-Irish, this time as head of the Justice and Security Section.

  1. During the negotiations of the GFA, I learned that it had been agreed that while policing would have a full independent commission, the justice system would be reviewed only. This reflected a strong belief in the NIO and among Unionists that the justice system had continued to operate throughout the conflict and did not require fundamental reform. However, the review process was not without its problems. When I returned in 2002, I learned from contacts that the Criminal Justice Act, which gave effect to the recommendations of the Review, fell short of requirements, notably on judicial appointments. In anticipation of another round of talks to advance the implement of the GFA and secure the decommissioning of paramilitary weapons, I convened talks involving the SDLP, led by Alex Attwood, and Sinn Féin, led by Gerry Kelly, at the Wellington Park hotel to agree a common agenda for amendments to the Act. These proposed changes became part of the negotiations convened at Hillsborough in March 2003. These commitments, including to a new Act, were published in a Joint Declaration by the British and Irish Governments in April 2003.
  2. I was also involved in secret talks at Farmleigh with British security officials on security normalisation. This was the culmination of many years of talks about the pace of normalisation. For example, the Chief Constable regarded the Observation Towers in South Armagh as essential to the safety of his officers where locals detested them as unwarranted intrusions. They had continued in operation for many years after the signing of the GFA. Seamus Mallon with mordant humour regarded them as the bane of his life. The eventual dismantling of the Towers and other military installations were seen as tangible indications of the progress of the peace process.
  3. Arising from the Weston Park Agreement and the SDLP’s endorsement of the new policing arrangements, the British and Irish Governments agreed to appoint a judge of international standing to investigate allegations of collusion in six controversial cases, including the murder of Pat Finucane. The judge was to make a recommendation on whether any or all of these cases merited a public inquiry. There was considerable back and forth between Dublin and London as to the appointee7. I interviewed and recommended Judge Peter Cory of the Supreme Court of Canada. This was endorsed by the British Government. Judge Cory did an outstanding job with speed and great integrity. His recommendation for a public inquiry into the murder of Pat Finucane has yet to be implemented.

Irish Aid, UN Director, Director Conflict Resolution Unit, 2004-2009

In 2005 I was asked by the Secretary General Dermot Gallagher, acting at the request of the Minister, Dermot Ahern T.D., to establish a conflict resolution unit to share the lessons of the peace process. We launched a number of initiatives including a National Action Plan on UNSC 1325 Women, Peace and Security, and projects in East Timor, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. In 2009 I was appointed as Ambassador to the Republic of Korea and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

2013 to the present
In 2013 I was appointed Ambassador to Israel. In 2015 I returned to HQ as Director General for Trade. In 2020 I was appointed as Ambassador to Canada, Jamaica and The Bahamas.

Eamonn McKee
Ambassador of Ireland, Ottawa
15 January 2022


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The Good Friday Agreement Twenty-five years on: The Summer of 1998 and the Long Road to Peace

Travelers were officials working in Anglo-Irish Division who would weekly travel north to meet contacts, learn what was going on, report back and feed into intergovernmental discussions. Memory jog seeing my NI reports surface in the released state papers.[1] The parades issue was my beat as a traveler.  It pitched NI into new levels of heightened social tensions with dire potential.

Flashpoints combusted when Orange Lodges insisted on marching through nationalist areas. Places like the Lower Ormeau Road in south Belfast and the small village of Dunloy in the heart of Orange country in Antrim.  Drumcree in Armagh, the birthplace of Orangism, emerged as the leading battle of wills. 

Portadown Orange Lodge No. 1 held a traditional church service at Drumcree on the Sunday before the Twelfth of July, the annual celebration of King William of Orange’s victory over King James at the Battle of the Boyne in 1691.  The traditional route took them along the Garvaghy Road, a nationalist housing estate on the edge of the predominantly loyalist Portadown. For the Twelfth, Portadown centre would be festooned with red, white and blue bunting, curb stones similarly painted, and triumphal arches erected across the street depicting King Billy astride a white horse.

Why now, with the ceasefires in place? As my contact and friend Brendan McAllister of Mediation Northern Ireland explained to me, the parades issue emerged after the paramilitary ceasefires as the new vehicle for the cross-community divisions that lay at the heart of the conflict.  The struggle between the paramilitaries and the security forces had acted as a default, a kind of lethal Punch and Judy show between ‘professionals’ on both sides, paramilitaries and the security forces.[2] 

The Orange Lodges insisted that they had the right to march ‘the Queen’s highways.’  Resident groups resisted this, saying they should not be locked in their homes with the security forces aiding a sectarian and triumphal demonstration. Each side saw in this a contest about their place in society, their rights, and the esteem of their identity.

The British Government appointed the North Commission to review parades and marches.  It reported that “The dispute in the summer of 1996 between the Loyal Orders and Nationalist residents groups, which required major intervention by the police under the public order legislation, brought Northern Ireland close to anarchy.”[3] Since the issue was on my desk, I drafted the Government’s response to the North Review.  It appeared from my research that while the right to assembly was a well-established one in many jurisdictions, there was no right to decide the route to that assembly.  Our submission argued that each parade dispute be subjected to arbitration based on the rule of law to adjudicate between those who insisted on marching and those who resisted such marches. The Director General, Sean Ó hUigínn, reviewed, honed and approved the draft. We traveled to meet the North Review to discuss the submission, Sean leading the delegation and responding to their questions with his eloquence and deep intellect. He left satisfied with the outcome. The North Review recommended the establishment of a Parades Commission operating under a new Public Processions (NI) Act 1998.[4] 

Tensions spilled over again in July 1997 as the Garvaghy Residents were cleared off their streets by the RUC on the night before the Orange parade. Riots broke out across the North.  The Minister, Ray Burke, called me to his office and instructed me to meet the residents. From the rise above Newry town, an eerie sight of plumes of black smoke rose across the North.

With the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in April 1998, the Drumcree march in July became a test case.  The newly established Parades Commission had ruled against the parade going via the Garvaghy Road. Loyalists and Orangemen gathered outside the church at Drumcree.  Nationalist supporters flooded into the Garvaghy Road.  The British Army dug a ditch and put up barbed wire in between both groups. There was something primal about the carnival of menace, jeering, fireworks and hatred from Drumcree hill. Everything seemed to be on the line: rights, law and order, the authority of the Parades Commission, the future.

In an attempt to head off the confrontation, ‘proximity talks’ were convened.  The Orange Order refused to meet directly with the Garvaghy Residents, seeing in this an admission that the Residents had a say in public order.  I was with them as the Government’s representative.  Their legal advisor was Rosemary Nelson from nearby Lurgan. I knew Rosemary from previous cases that we had raised through the Secretariat of the Intergovernmental Conference.  We talked a lot about the North in the longueurs of the proximity talks, about the tensions of living there, of the relief she felt whenever she crossed the border south. There wasn’t much for me to do but observe, check with contacts, make sure no untoward or unacceptable initiatives made matters worse, and keep Dublin closely informed. Under the leadership of the new DG of Anglo-Irish, Dermot Gallagher, senior officials in Dublin, Belfast and London were actively engaged and monitoring developments, advising the Taoiseach Bertie Ahern as developments unfolded. I’m sure the lines between Ahern and Blair were busy. Up north, as a mediator trusted by all sides including leading churchmen on both sides, Brendan McAllister was trying his best to cajole a solution. My opposite number was Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s chief of staff.  Jonathan too tried his best to negotiate a solution as he shuttled between Portadown Orange Lodge No 1 and the Garvaghy Road Residents. 

Then a horrific incident changed the atmosphere. Jason, Mark and Richard Quinn, three young boys, died in a UVF firebomb attack on their home in Ballymoney on July 12th. Widespread condemnation was immediate, including from some very courageous Protestant clergymen who spoke out from the pulpits.  A new consensus coalesced, enough was enough. Tensions eased, the Parades Commission’s decision was upheld. Garvaghy Road did not see an Orange Parade.

The Good Friday Agreement faced another dreadful test a month later.  On August 15th the Real IRA exploded a bomb in Omagh, killing 29 and including more than 200.  It was the worst incident of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, surpassed in lethality only by the Dublin Monaghan bombings in 1974 that killed 33 and injured more than 300. The consensus hardened that such murderous violence had to be consigned to the past, that the GFA was the future. 

In that summer of 1998, it was as if the Agreement, the shield of good intentions and high ambitions, made of words and ink, blessed by the people’s endorsement North and South, was being tested by the swords and dragons of Northern Ireland.  

Though Northern Ireland’s swordsmen and dragons died hard, the shield stood.  There would be other killings, for sure. In March 1999, Rosemary Nelson was killed when a bomb exploded under her car.  It was claimed by a loyalist group.  Yet peace had the upper hand and the inclination to use of violence ebbed.  Even the means to carry it out were tackled, led by the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning.  Canada’s General John de Chastelain played a key role in this along with its other members.  I had never been sure that decommissioning had been feasible.  In the wake of the GFA, a republican contact in Derry had thrown a live round across a table at me, said take it to Dublin and “tell them that’s the only f—king decommissioning they’re going to see.” It was a stubborn issue that took years to unlock but that too was achieved. As the new policing represented by the PSNI took hold, the prize of decommissioning all paramilitary weapons was finally won. The monopoly on the use of violence was returned to the state.

Twenty-five years on, the signing of the Good Friday Agreement reminds us of what we left behind: killing and hatred, a decent future frustrated by the claims of the past. Finding peace in Northern Ireland had been a long road: the Sunningdale Agreement 1973-74, the Haughey-Thatcher summits in the early 1980s, the Anglo-Irish Agreement 1985, the Hume-Adams talks, the paramilitary ceases fires in 1994 and 1997, the GFA in 1998 and the twenty-nine subsequent agreements to implement it.  Through infinite hours of talks, meetings and negotiations, peace came dropping slow.

Great leaders emerged who took courageous decisions: Hume, Mallon, Haughey, Thatcher, FitzGerald, Spring, Major, Reynolds, Adams, McGuinness, Trimble, Robinson, Bruton, McAleese, Paisely (eventually) and Blair.  Countless others included the women of the Peace Movement like Mairead Corrigan and later leaders of the Women’s Coalition like Monica McWilliams and Pearl Sagar.  People working in NGOs and community groups at interfaces, risking vilification and physical violence to inch forward toleration.

Now the black swan of Brexit calls again for leadership of a very high order, provided on the Irish side by a new political generation. Like generations of peace makers of all kinds, as officials we were sustained by a ‘duty of hope’, committed to the process, always working toward a better future.  Here’s to more progress in 2023.



1 January 2023


[2] Security forces as a term covers many organizations, including RUC, its Special Branch which was regarded as a force within a force, the British Army and a host of covert intelligence agencies, including MI5 and the British Army’s Force Research Unit.



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