The Good Friday Agreement works when we put people first

It is 25 years since Northern Ireland's historic peace deal was agreed - but some still forget its most important lesson

From left, political leaders David Trimble, Ian Paisley, Gerry Adams and John Hume. Nick Donaldson/PA
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As the clock ticked past midnight on Thursday April 9, 1998 – ushering in Good Friday – I was sitting in the presenter’s seat in the news studio of Ulster Television in downtown Belfast.

The Rev Dr Ian Paisley, the leader of the anti-Good Friday Agreement Democratic Unionist Party, had returned to Stormont, the former home of Northern Ireland’s parliament, for one last protest. A colleague of mine prowling the car park outside Castle Buildings, where the Good Friday talks continued, grabbed him and soon I was interviewing him live from a prefabricated hut that functioned as our remote studio.

The talks to reach the Good Friday Agreement were aimed at ending Northern Ireland’s 30-year conflict but the DUP were opposed to the process and the deal, regarding it as a threat to the country’s position in the UK.

Paisley disliked my line of questioning, accusing my station of hijacking him on his way to Sky television. He suggested that I must be tired and told me I should go to my bed. To this day, I regret not having the speed of thought to ask if that was “on doctor’s orders”. Seven hours later, graffiti appeared on the Falls Road in republican west Belfast, reading “Live Exclusive Sky/UTV Nesbitt v Paisley”. I started Good Friday as a piece of street art.

When I think of April 10, 1998, I also recall February 1, 1994 – a seminal day on the journey towards the Good Friday Agreement. It was the day that Gerry Adams, then president of the Irish republican party, Sinn Fein, made his debut in the US – in that hotbed of American socialism, the Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in Manhattan.

The occasion was a conference on Northern Ireland, organised by the National Committee on American Foreign Policy. Adams, previously banned from entering the US because of his party’s “inextricable links” to the Irish Republican Army, needed the support of Bill Clinton to obtain a visa, limited as it was by geography (New York) and time (48 hours).

His visit was part of American efforts to encourage a peace deal, efforts that would lead to greater direct US involvement in Northern Ireland’s peace process.

Two memories persist. One was the reaction of the unionist leaders of the day. James Molyneaux of the Ulster Unionist Party and Paisley not only withdrew from the conference, they cancelled their flights. Who on Earth did they think would put unionism’s case for them? It was a terrible own goal.

The second memory is that of a moment after the conference closed. Adams stood in the reception area, surrounded by just short of 40 television crews, circling him like rings of an onion. In the corner, smoking a cigarette, observing, was John Hume, the leader of Sinn Fein’s Irish nationalist rivals in the Social Democratic and Labour Party. John had spent over 25 years, tirelessly flying back and forth to America, on a solo mission to generate interest in Northern Ireland’s affairs. That day, he brought Adams, a man against whom he competed for votes, into the political process. It was a remarkable example of putting the needs of the people before party interests. Without it, I believe there would have been no Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. But it hurt him and his party, badly.

I mention February 1, 1994 because that spirit of “people first” was what finally prevailed on April 10, 1998, when, in the words of the talks chair, the then US Senator George Mitchell: “Two governments and eight political parties were about to commit themselves to peace, political stability and reconciliation in Northern Ireland.”

Over the intervening 25 years, that commitment has been variable: at its best when politicians see the need to act in the greater good; at its divisive worst when party-political concerns are dominant.

The last of the eight parties to sign up to the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement was my own, the Ulster Unionist Party. The leader, David Trimble, did not deliver his support until 4.45pm, leaving it as late as he could, as he tried to hold his party together.

The problem was not the fundamentals of the Agreement – the framework of relationships between Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and the UK as well as the principle of consent for Irish unification – but the transitional arrangements: the early release of paramilitary prisoners as well as the review of policing that led to the end of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, who had lost hundreds of officers to the IRA.

Trimble’s deputy leader, John Taylor, said of one draft of the agreement that he would not touch it with a “40-foot pole”. Hume’s deputy, Seamus Mallon, was acutely aware of the damage that would be inflicted on the SDLP if Hume persisted in opening doors for Sinn Fein.

Both Hume and Trimble were rewarded for their leadership with the 1998 Nobel Peace Prize. Their parties did not fare so well. In the first elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly in 1998, the two parties took 48 per cent of the seats. In the last elections in May 2022, that combined figure was just 19 per cent. “People first” has given way to the pure party-political interests of the other, now-dominant parties.

Conflict on the same scale in the US would have resulted in 700,000 dead, 6 million prisoners, 9 million injured, 7 million shootings, 3 million bombs and 800,000 suicides

Every politician will tell you they got into politics to make a difference. I am no different, but perhaps my journey is. It began on January 25, 1973, the day the IRA blew up my family’s linen business. My father was 49 at the time and in the moment of the explosion, every certainty in his life disappeared (his father had brought him up to inherit the running of the business). However, every responsibility remained: a wife, three young children, a car, a house, but suddenly no income stream. Later, I read a passage from Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations in which he wrote of “memorable days”:

“That was a memorable day to me, for it made great changes in me. But it is the same with any life. Imagine one selected day struck out of it, and think how different its course would have been. Pause you who read this, and think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day.”

That is the story of the Northern Ireland conflict, what we so euphemistically call our “Troubles”. There are thousands and thousands of people whose memorable day, like my father’s, was a bomb or a shooting that robbed them of life or life opportunities in education, employment, health or social inclusion. They remain wrapped in chains of iron and thorns, and those chains pass inter-generationally to their children, grandchildren and now great grandchildren. To give it some context, conflict on the same scale in the US would have resulted in 700,000 dead, 6 million prisoners, 9 million injured, 7 million shootings, 3 million bombs and 800,000 suicides.

The core of the 1998 Agreement’s attempt to end that carnage was to improve relationships, across three strands: within Northern Ireland; between Northern Ireland and our neighbours to the south in the Republic; and between the neighbouring islands of Ireland and Great Britain. It is no accident that the Agreement begins with a declaration from all participants to build relationships based on reconciliation, tolerance, offering mutual respect and building trust. When it works, it works. And when it works, it’s because we are putting the interests of the people first.

As a four-time member of the Northern Ireland Assembly, I am unlikely to stand a fifth time (bar a snap election). I want to use what time remains to encourage a return to the spirit of Hume and Trimble, putting people first.

Too many of my fellow citizens wake up every morning with no real purpose in life, wrapped in the wrong type of chain. I want to help create the circumstances where they have a reason to get up; where they are earning good money, having their children well educated, where they enjoy a quality of life and standard of living that is a proper legacy of what was agreed 25 years ago at Castle Buildings. In short, where Nesbitt v Paisley becomes Nesbitt and Paisley, where our bitterly divided society becomes a gloriously, naturally diverse one, with a united purpose.

Published: April 07, 2023, 6:00 PM
Updated: April 11, 2023, 3:51 PM