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Meet the woman who put to music legislation that was created to bring peace to Northern Ireland

Civil servant Clare Salters saw the Good Friday Agreement being drafted and tells Leona O'Neill that she devised her musical piece to remind people of its importance

Clare Salters
Clare Salters
The choir performing Clare's piece
Rev Ian Paisley
Leona O'Neill

By Leona O'Neill

A Scottish civil servant who was involved in Northern Ireland's historic peace talks has done what many thought would be completely impossible and set the Good Friday Agreement to music.

Fifty-one-year-old London-based Clare Salters decided to put the 'Declaration of Support' to song to "remind people what the Agreement was about and the peace it represents".

Clare's video of choir singers belting out The Good Friday Agreement, pEACE in 4/4 Time in a church setting has had viewers baffled and spellbound in equal measure since it went online last week.

A mother-of-one, Clare was born to a Belfast father in St Andrews and had a deep connection with Northern Ireland before her career in the Civil Service even began.

"I grew up in Scotland, but my dad is from Belfast and so we visited extended family there frequently and discussions about Northern Ireland were part and parcel of our family life," she says.

"I remember the ring of steel around the city centre in Belfast and the strange sense that this and the wider security measures and tensions seemed completely normal and yet also completely the opposite of normal anywhere else.

"I became involved in the Good Friday Agreement talks after joining the Civil Service on the graduate fast stream. In 1996 I was posted as private secretary to the head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, who in those days was also the deputy head of the Northern Ireland Office.

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Mo Mowlam
Mo Mowlam

"That was the year that the structured negotiations that led to the Agreement began, so I had a bird's-eye view of everything that was going on in the UK Government side. After that role, and following the 1997 general election, I joined the political development team within the Northern Ireland Office itself."

In her role Clare was able to witness history unfold before her eyes.

"I was obviously a very junior cog in the machine in those days," she says.

"But I was part of the UK Government's team of note-takers who maintained a record of events each day.

"This involved running round after the Secretary of State and recording what happened in all of the meetings, in particular what had been agreed, and making sure that those who needed to action them knew what had been discussed and what needed to be done as a result.

"They were long, long days and a sense of hope and frustration continually woven in together that was exhausting to maintain over such a sustained period.

The choir performing Clare's piece
The choir performing Clare's piece

"The majority of the time the process was a relentless series of discussions about familiar issues, often covering very similar ground, but gradually edging towards the possibility of agreement.

"But there were a few lighter moments. I remember once I was on note-taking duties and was sat in the Secretary of State's room waiting for a meeting to start and suddenly became aware of my hand touching something furry. I nearly jumped out of my skin, thinking it was a mouse or worse. I felt very foolish, but also relieved to discover it was the Secretary of State's discarded wig, tucked down the side of the sofa.

"I remember the first time I met Ian Paisley - I was handing over a briefcase of papers to a colleague, and just waiting for them to finish what they were doing, and I heard an enormous voice booming down the corridor: 'I hope that is not a bomb you have in the briefcase young lady!' "And I remember Michael Ancram's elephant ties. He had an amazing collection of them - I don't think I ever saw him wearing a non-elephant tie ever - either in NIO days or seeing him on the news subsequently."

Through it all Clare says the commitment to peace and progress was glaringly evident.

"There was a very palpable sense of commitment from virtually all of those involved in the process to realising a better future," she says. "I was privileged to witness at close hand behind the scenes the two UK ministerial teams that saw this process through - Major, Mayhew and Ancram; and Blair, Mowlam, Murphy and Ingram. I was left in no doubt that all of them were deeply committed to reaching a solution that was in Northern Ireland's interest and the 'no selfish strategic or economic interest' maxim was genuinely meant by all of them.

"But my overwhelming memory from that period is of working alongside some deeply inspirational colleagues in the NIO and the central secretariat, who exemplified how a public servant should behave. It was not always an easy place to work - but by and large it was a supportive team, made up of exceptionally impressive people tackling difficult issues with courage, integrity and commitment."

Tony Blair (second left) and Bertie Ahern signed the Good Friday Agreement in 1998
Tony Blair (second left) and Bertie Ahern signed the Good Friday Agreement in 1998

Clare says that when the Good Friday Agreement eventually came to pass it was "a combination of relief, and elation and almost feeling it was too good to believe". She says that the essence of the Agreement inspired her to put it to music and remind everyone what it meant and still means.

"It really did feel like the world had changed... unlocking the potential for a better future. It is something that I still hold very dear. How could anyone not want to hold onto that hope and do everything possible to avoid slipping backwards?

"In 2018 I had been involved in an international project to mark the centenary of the 2014 Armistice with a 'global concert for co-operation'. It was called #iPlay4Peace, symbolising the power of music to bring people together, making harmony across divisions and so on.

"They invited people to submit compositions on the theme of peace and I was honoured that mine was chosen as one of the 2019 pieces, along with two others.

"I'll agree that it's an unlikely thing to set to music - and indeed that proved a bit of a challenge trying to give musical life to words that were definitely designed to be seen on paper rather than sung.

"But I had been struck, in the latter part of my time in the Civil Service, by how many people in Great Britain had forgotten what the Agreement was about.

"So partly I wanted to find a way to remind people of the depth and complexities of the Agreement. But I also thought that the agreement - and the long process of its continuing implementation - was quite a good symbol of peace more generally. It is not simply a case of getting to a point where signatures appear on a piece of paper, massive achievement though that is, but the sustained effort of delivering on those decisions that continues long after the ink is dry.

"Musically, it's a bit of an odd mixture, combining Renaissance-like polyphony with a spot of blues. It builds in a musical cryptogram, with the opening phrase of most verses spelling out the word 'pEACE'.

"The lyrics, of course, are nightmarishly difficult to make fit. I took the view that it was essential to stick to the precise wording of the declaration rather than paraphrase anything.

The choir performing Clare's piece
The choir performing Clare's piece

"I learnt early on in my NIO career how much depended on getting the wording exactly right. I can think of no other government department where our stakeholders might quote the opening of St John's gospel to us - 'In the beginning was the Word' - in order to emphasise the importance of precision drafting.

"In most places, it was possible to fit the wording without making things too convoluted. And to get through the lengthy lists of institutional and constitutional amendments that is essential to the fabric of the Agreement, those are sung in overlapping parts by the tenors and basses, with the sopranos and altos singing 'interlocking and interdependent' in suspended harmony above.

"That was probably the trickiest bit of the piece to perform - far too many syllables to get out. Someone commented that there were far too many institutions and it was too difficult to get them to work. I thought wryly that was how some people viewed the institutions in real life."

Clare's choir was made up of a variety of amateur or professional musicians with a long history of supporting the peace process in a range of ways, including two former NIO colleagues of hers who had also been involved in the talks, and a daughter of one of the Peace People. "Our recording is unashamedly rough-and-ready, reflecting very much a first run through rather than a polished performance," she says. "We've been described as a 'rather motley-looking choir', which is probably a fair challenge but not something I think we should feel bad about.

"To hear 30 people singing those words aloud, to tunes and harmonies that I had written and in a church with such a beautiful acoustic, was really special.

"Several of the choir said how moving they had found the experience and, in particular, how powerful they had found the words.

"And for those without direct connections to Northern Ireland, being reminded of just how complex and carefully-balanced the Agreement was and how much it covered, was important."

Clare says she would love to see the piece performed in Northern Ireland at some stage this year and has encouraged anyone interested in hosting the choir to get in touch through their Sing Good Friday Agreement page on Facebook.

Clare's next big project is raising funds for the One Handed Musical Instrument Trust, a charity which works to make instrumental music accessible to people with a range of physical disabilities. You can donate to the charity here: www.uk.virginmoneygiving.com/ClareSalters

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