Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 24 April 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

What will the leaders give up to achieve peace deal?

Deal maker: George Mitchell

Last week, a Belfast Telegraph reporter called me to ask how the bone-chilling cold we in Massachusetts had endured during recent weeks compared with past cold snaps.

Driving in my car at the time, I was a bit distracted, so I quickly rattled off memories of a couple of similar past deep-freezes.

Upon hanging up, however, I suddenly recalled that one of the coldest nights of my life was actually April 9-10, 1998 – the night the Good Friday Agreement was hammered out.

As one of the army of international Press that invaded Belfast to cover the climactic, round-the-clock negotiations, I'd billeted in one of the mega-tents in Castle Buildings's grounds.

I still shiver recalling the malfunctioning heater in the tent, blowing out frigidly cold air to such an extent that my computer would barley work.

Then came the morning of April 10 and the Good Friday Agreement. I'll never forget driving back through the city centre, seeing the streets of Belfast and the hills above it covered in snow.

Amazingly, next August will mark 10 years since my family and I returned to America after six-and-a-half years living in Belfast. Without equivocation, I can say that our time in the city was one of the happiest periods of our lives.

Much maligned by outsiders as a land mired in bitter political and religious divisions, we instead discovered a city that was complex – clearly divided, but also easy to navigate, child and family-friendly, with a population that was bright and engaging.

People that I interviewed during that time of tremendous change still stick with me today. Whether it was the RUC veteran, who lost a leg to an IRA bomb, a girl whose father collapsed in a pool of blood at her feet after being shot by loyalists, a man who watched a dead infant carried from the rubble of an IRA bombing, or a man whose nine-year-old son was shot dead in his bedroom by a randomly-fired RUC-fired bullet, heart-breaking stories abounded.

Given that, it was truly amazing how so many people, on both sides, dug deep and reached out to compromise.

Since moving back to the US, I've continued my connection to Belfast by covering the periodic US trips of Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness and, later, Peter Robinson and McGuinness as they trawled America seeking financial and political support for Northern Ireland's evolving political landscape.

Fast-forward to December 2013. Like many Americans with Northern Ireland ties, as I watched the Richard Haass-led talks run aground, I couldn't help but feel disappointed.

No one with half a brain would ever have thought that the Good Friday Agreement would have drawn a final line under the Troubles. There were too many deeply emotive issues to be dealt with.

Still, if my time in Belfast taught me anything, it was that the core lesson of the Irish peace process was that no one ever gets everything they want in peace negotiations. Tough calls had to be made and defended.

Like George Mitchell before them, however committed they were, Richard Haass and Meghan O'Sullivan were only the most recent highly-visible supporting cast in the nuts-and-bolts drama of conflict-resolution in Northern Ireland. They have now ridden off into the sunset.

The question now is: what will local leaders be willing to sacrifice for the peaceful existence of future generations?