Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 28 August 2014

Why we are still waiting for the long Good Friday to end

On Good Friday evening 1998, the scene in the shadow of Stormont's famous facade resembled an Arabian encampment. The world's media had assembled in strength, shivering on the windswept lawns close by Carson's statue.

TV presenters sheltered from the icy April air inside a tented media village. Separated from one another by partitions of billowing canvas, they babbled excitedly in a myriad of languages, imparting the story of Northern Ireland to their global audience.

Their rows of satellite dishes were sending out an Easter message the world had never expected to hear. The old headlines of horror from Ulster had given way to new talk of lasting peace.

It was heady stuff that night as we waited our turn before the cameras, to reduce the complexity of the Belfast accord to a few simple soundbites for the outside world to try and understand. But was it really the end game, we anticipated? Today, I think we now know different.

"I feel the hand of history upon my shoulders," said then Prime Minister Blair, memorably, when he arrived in Belfast 10 years ago this week. US President Bill Clinton said: "I was never more proud of my Irish heritage." Departing Taoiseach Bertie Ahern considers it his finest hour.

Undoubtedly all three displayed intense focus and commitment. Blair acted, to quote Alastair Campbell's diary, "like a man possessed". Ahern had to contend with the grief of his mother's death and funeral in the middle of the talks. Clinton spent a sleepless night on the telephone from the White House, to secure a deal.

And yet the Good Friday Agreement was not really an agreement at all. If it had been, how come it has taken until now to see any form of stable power-sharing administration at Stormont?

If it had been an agreement, how come the main protagonists have yet to shake hands with one another? That policing and justice powers are likely to take even longer than the May 2008 deadline to be transferred to Northern Ireland? That it took so many years to persuade terrorists to put their weapons beyond use and some still haven't? That the whole process broke down so soon after it started? And that for all his efforts, David Trimble was consigned so soon to political oblivion and that the party he led has not fared much better?

Of course, it was also not an agreement because little more than two-thirds of the Northern Ireland electorate supported it. In fact it was a deal with nearly all nationalists and republicans on this island but only a slim majority of unionists. The spin doctors of our society made it look much better than that. But, most of all, it was a deal based on promises that couldn't be delivered. Not tomorrow. Or next month. Or, in fact, for years ahead, if at all.

None of that we said before the cameras on that chilly Good Friday night at Stormont because much of it we didn't realise would be the case. And what suspicions we did harbour were swept away on a raging tide of optimism.

True, we hung on every word, every twist and turn of the negotiations. We scanned every sentence, parsed every paragraph, sought hidden meanings in everything our politicians had to say.

Yet, only a decade on, the memory blurs. What seemed giant, almost impossible leaps for Northern Ireland then, do not look so formidable now. What we did not consider possible in 1998, we take very much for granted in 2008. Do you lie awake today worrying about Strand One, Strand Two or Strand Three? Do people bite their nails to the quick over north-south and east-west implementation bodies? Do you recall the bitter battles over opening the gates of the Maze prison? Or how many seats there should be in the Stormont Assembly? Or what the oath of allegiance should be for Assembly members

Today we argue about whether we should watch football at the Maze, not whether prisoners should be let out of the place. We go out shopping, who knows, brushing shoulders with one-time killers and bombers. We get all hot under the collar with a Sinn Fein minister, not about the IRA, but her attitude to our children's education. The death toll which concerns us most these days relates no longer to victims of violence but bugs in hospital beds. Granted, every now and then, this new peaceful world of ours explodes in a bout of sectarian hooliganism or vengeful murder but, by and large, Good Friday 1998 is consigned to the back of our brains, its nuances and differences lost in the humdrum reality of our daily lives.

If ever the full minutes of the Good Friday negotiations are revealed, they will surely show how trivial, how insignificant, and yet how apparently irreconcilable, some of our differences were at that time. Differences, some of which, we don't give a fig about today. Good Friday 1998 was mainly down to the persuasive powers of Tony Blair.

In three days and nights of hothouse negotiations, he employed his hypnotic skills, sometimes with the unionists, other times with the republicans. And when he felt he couldn't get one or other to comply, he enlisted other performers to take the stage, like Bertie from Dublin and Bill in the middle of the night from Washington. And, of course, not forgetting the undisputed champion of diplomacy, Senator George Mitchell. If Good Friday 1998 was not quite the agreement it was made out to be, it was still historic and still ground-breaking. It enshrined the principle of consent and ensured that we the people of Northern Ireland would have a proper say in our future destiny.

It gave majority rule to the unionists in the sense that Northern Ireland cannot cease being a part of the United Kingdom unless a majority wish that to be so. It gave minority rights to nationalists to the point of power-sharing at Stormont.

It offered unionists continued ties with Britain and nationalists new ties to the Republic. It was a masterstroke of ambiguity in which all of us, unionists and nationalists alike, could put our suspicious distrustful minds at rest, if not totally. Above all, it promised a peace none of us had known for much or our lifetimes and that was the biggest prize of all.

So this week, everyone involved, — not least George Mitchell — will take credit and understandably so, but we shouldn't get carried away with what was achieved.

True, it was an enormously symbolic moment and a turning point along the rockiest of roads.

But it was not the end-game. It only heralded the beginning of the end. And since then, we have stuttered, stumbled and even occasionally fallen but I still think we can breast the final tape. Let's hope it doesn't take another 10 years!

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