Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 2 September 2014

No going back: Reflections on Good Friday Agreement - the deal that changed everything in Northern Ireland

Anna Maguire and Chris Kilpatrick ask key figures for their thoughts on the legacy of the Good Friday Agreement, 15 years after the pact was sealed

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair

Fifteen years ago, when I came to Stormont, there was little expectation of a deal being done. The peace process was in turmoil. But because of the will of the people in Northern Ireland, that historic Good Friday signalled the start of a peaceful future.

Now as I travel to different parts of the world, what happened in Northern Ireland is something that immediately connects with people.

It brings hope for other conflicts – from Africa to the Middle East – that a situation that once seemed so bleak can be resolved.

There will be political crises, and there will be continuing problems, but I firmly believe that Northern Ireland will not return to the times of the Troubles.

The gains of peace are visible and clear, and there is an overwhelming desire from the people for this to remain,

So 15 years on, we should remember the past but also look confidently towards a peaceful future for Northern Ireland.

There can be no going back.

Prime Minister David Cameron

At this distance it is easy to forget just how painstaking and lengthy the process was that eventually led to the Agreement.

The final product itself was not perfect. Yet it represented a massive step forward from what had gone before, a clear manifestation that politics and democracy would triumph over violence.

Former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern

My mother had a heart attack on Sunday morning.

She died at six on Monday morning. On Tuesday we got into formal talks and had meetings on Tuesday and I had the removal of my mother's remains on Tuesday evening. I remember Thursday night and Friday morning Sinn Fein still had a whole list of items. Everyone else had two, and myself and Mo Mowlam were trying to work with them. Really, there has been almost total peace since. There have been a few incidents but nothing like we experienced every day for the previous 30 years.

Senator George Mitchell

It was a difficult experience but one that ultimately produced what I think is a good result.

When the agreement was reached I said publicly on that day and in the days that followed that in itself it did not guarantee peace or political stability or reconciliation but rather it made them possible.

Whether they would occur would depend upon the courage and commitment of the political leaders and people of Northern Ireland.

As we all know of course there were many problems, setbacks, issues over the past 15 years but they have worked hard to resolve them and I certainly believe, and I hope most people do, that Northern Ireland is a better place as a result of the agreement.

It's undeniable not every issue has been resolved or problem solved. I also think it's important not to hold Northern Ireland to an unrealistic standard that no other society meets. Every society has its problems.

We've got plenty of problems here in the United States, there are problems in other parts of the United Kingdom, there are plenty of problems in Ireland and the European Union and you could go all around the world and say the same thing.

On balance, I think Northern Ireland has made progress and I feel very honoured to have been part of it. I still come back to Northern Ireland often. I'm an American and proud of it but a large part of my heart and my emotions will always be in Northern Ireland and with the people there.

First Minister Peter Robinson

With the Belfast Agreement failing to end terrorist activity, see the decommissioning of weapons or even deliver a functioning Assembly, all it offered was a template of errors.

Northern Ireland is a vastly different place now than it was in 1998, but those changes came about when the failures of the Belfast Agreement were finally dealt with and stable, workable devolution was achieved.

What is more important to the people of Northern Ireland today, however, are our plans for the future and how we can deliver the kind of peaceful and prosperous society that we all want to see.

Seamus Mallom, former deputy leader of the SDLP

Senator George Mitchell said that he was leaving on Easter Saturday. With that realisation, the last three days were non-stop. What the Agreement meant was almost 40 years of trying to keep the political institutions alive and get a working arrangement, that was arrived at.

If it were working to its full potential it would have created a disposition towards reconciliation and working towards the future.

It has become a power play between Sinn Fein and the DUP.

I read recently the Agreement again, and it is striking how fresh and innocent it seems now.

It is actually a very innovative and interesting document. What is tragic is how all the language of reconciliation seems to have decayed and we seem to be stuck playing the same old games. To all intents and purposes the Agreement removed any legitimacy in political violence. It is still the only game in town, but we seem to have a hard time realising it.

Lord Empey, Ulster Unionist talks negotiator

There was great tension. Towards the end people were locked up in the building all night. We ran out of food. Tension was running high.

Then we had the famous intervention from Bill Clinton, who phoned up in the middle of our deliberations. We all rolled our eyes at that.

Finally, after quite a long time, it came to a conclusion and that was what David Trimble brought across the corridor to our colleagues.

Sinn Fein MLA Mitchel McLaughlin was a key negotiator during the talks

After seven years of talks about talks and shadow talks, in about seven months an agreement was produced which has been sustained.

What Sinn Fein agreed to was that the status quo in the North would remain until the majority emerged to change it.

That's clearly what we had to take back and negotiate with our supporters – and when we look at dissident opinion it was too much for some of them to cope with.

We all know that we are going to test the constitutional options.

Nigel Smyth, director of the Confederation of British Industry in Northern Ireland

At that stage we all thought we were entering into a new era. What we thought would have taken months or years has taken arguably decades.

There's a lot of frustrations. I still think there's a lot of untapped potential for our children.

We need to get our act together. The world does not owe us a living. There's a lot of opportunities and we need to grasp those opportunities far quicker.

Alastair Campbell, foremr spokesman for Tony Blair

I found McGuinness more impressive than Adams, who did the big statesman bit, and talked in grand historical sweeps, but McGuinness just made a point and battered it, and forced you to take it on board. The peace agreement in Northern Ireland alone in my view puts Tony Blair in the top rank of Prime Ministers.

Alliance leader David Ford

The 10th of April 1998 was a seminal moment in our history. I was proud of what we achieved. The Agreement that was signed that day was never going to be the end of the process. It gave us the opportunities and the confidence to move our society forward. However, there is still much work that remains unfinished. It is up to all the political parties to ensure that we continue to work towards delivering a shared society for everyone.

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