Catholic birth rates spurred unionists into making 1998 deal, Clinton suggested

Posted By: January 10, 2016

News Letter (Belfast).Saturday, January 8, 2016

Bill Clinton, pictured with Tony Blair, was a strong supporter of the Good Friday Agreement

Changes in the Catholic-Protestant population left unionists fearing they would soon be “irrelevant”, and may have helped spur them into seeking a power-sharing deal in 1998.

That appears to be the claim made by President Bill Clinton, revealed in a newly-declassified document published this week.

The document is made up of transcripts of phone conversations which Clinton had with Tony Blair, around the time of the Good Friday Agreement.

Large segments of the document have been blanked out – particularly comments from Blair – meaning it is impossible to be certain of precisely what was being said during the conversations.

The News Letter has already uncovered one conversation in which Clinton appears to describe Blair as the “best friend” that certain elements of republicanism have ever had.

In one phone call – dated September 1, 1997 – the two world leaders begin by talking about the death of Princess Diana, who had died following a car crash the previous day.

Mr Blair opens by saying: “Hi, Bill. It’s a grim business, a very grim business.”

The conversation then moves on, and the President asks: “You’re doing well in Northern Ireland, no?”

Most of the exchange which follows has been edited out, but at one point Clinton says: “Do you think there is anything we can do to [David] Trimble to stroke him?”

Blair’s response has been removed from the document.

Clinton then adds: “I think they’re worried about being rendered irrelevant in 20 years, given the way the demographics are going, it’s better to make a deal now rather than later… If you look at it, their popular majority is eroding over time with the increasing birth rates, so now is the time.

“You’ll have to come up with some sort of creative dual relationship.”

According to figures published on the University of Ulster-run CAIN website, the proportion of Catholics in Northern Ireland had risen from 33.5 per cent in 1926, to 38.4 per cent by 1991.

Meanwhile, those belonging to the three main Protestant denominations (Presbyterian, CoI and Methodist) dropped from 62.2 per cent to 42.8 per cent in the same period.

The Clinton-Blair conversations were unearthed thanks to a Freedom of Information request from the BBC to the US government (originally made back in 2012).

From last year, the UK government signalled its intention to reduce citizens’ access to information via its own Freedom of Information Act, even though departments routinely flout the existing rules around freedom of information as it stands anyway.